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Freedom of Information: the Right to Know

The role of the media and its contribution to the development of democratic processes and defence of fundamental freedoms is celebrated globally every year on 3 May, as World Press Freedom Day. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights identifies freedom of expression as a fundamental right and the UN Human Rights office (OHCHR) is actively promoting the principle in a number of countries where it has a presence, especially in Africa where more than 20 countries will hold elections this year.

Maarit Kohonen Sheriff, OHCHR Regional Representative for Central Africa in Bamenda, Cameroon © OHCHR Central AfricaIn a statement marking the Day, The Special Rapporteur, Frank La Rue says, “It is imperative that we talk about a “right” wherein ordinary citizens can get information as an entitlement, and not as a favour.”

La Rue has called on all States “to review existing legislation or adopt new legislation on access to information in conformity with international standards, as a way to ensure the full enjoyment of the freedom of information and the right to know.”

Focusing on the theme, “freedom of information – the right to know”, the OHCHR Central African Regional Office gathered media professionals, local government representatives, judicial authorities, politicians and civil society representatives together in Bamenda, Cameroon to discuss not just the role of journalists but also their physical safety and legal issues surrounding journalism. 

This followed an earlier training workshop for journalists from both private and public media in eight countries of the Central African sub-region which examined the role of the media as a key player in achieving free, fair and transparent elections.

Speaking to the delegates, Maarit Kohonen Sheriff, OHCHR Regional Representative for Central Africa said, “The right to information in accessible formats, including for persons with disabilities, linguistic minorities and marginalized populations, the right to vote and the right to participate in political life are important human rights considerations during electoral processes.”

“The extent to which journalists can express themselves freely without threats and restrictions, often constitutes a barometer of the human rights situation in a country,” Kohonen said.

For many journalists their chosen profession makes them vulnerable. In the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, several journalists have been killed in the last few years. In their day-to-day work Congolese journalists deal with harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrest and threats of physical assault. 

On World Press Freedom Day, the Joint Human Rights Office (OHCHR – MONUC) in DRC invited representatives from civil society and from the judiciary to discuss freedom of the media on local radio. The NGOs Protection Network also participated in the radio programme. This network works closely with the Joint Human Rights office within the nationwide Protection Programme to address imminent threats to human right defenders. Listeners were invited to call in and offer their views.

Ahead of elections in 2011, OHCHR in Uganda is also promoting a focus on the media. The Office together with the Uganda Human Rights Commission held a round table discussion about recent developments in press freedom in Uganda and disseminated a jointly produced DVD on the subject. In a statement released to celebrate World Press Freedom Day, the Office encouraged the Government and Parliament of Uganda to take all necessary steps to protect the right to information, “critical for building a professional, free and independent media”.

Special events observing World Press Freedom Day were held in a number of other countries including in Cambodia, the occupied Palestinian territory, in Mexico and in Nepal.

3 May 2010