access to information

Governments across the globe have implemented sweeping measures to cope with the coronavirus crisis, often with negative repercussions for the right to information. Much-needed initiatives are stepping in.

Next to social distancing, washing your hands and practicing respiratory hygiene, the World Health Organisation also advises staying informed in order to protect yourself against COVID-19.

Accurate and trustworthy public information is of vital importance, especially during times of crisis. Without it, lives are at stake. Often, it is government bodies and public authorities that provide such information, be it recommendations on personal hygiene, scientific evidence on how exactly a disease spreads or where cases cluster. It goes hand in hand with transparency on why certain measures are taken and how stimulus packages are implemented.

It is therefore a disturbing trend that numerous countries have curtailed the right to public information (RTI) under the pretext of responding to the pandemic. This is not only the case under regimes where this right is regularly brushed aside, but also in countries where it is both protected by law and usually respected.

In Mexico, the National Institute of Transparency suspended the deadlines  for information requests from 23 March until 17 April. The offices of India’s Central Information Commission, the body that oversees RTI in the country, were closed on 25 March  for a period of 21 days, deferring all cases for the period. Italy, one of the countries hit hardest by the novel Coronavirus, issued Decree-Law No. 18/2020  on 17 March, suspending all non-urgent RTI activities. Similar blanket measures have been implemented, amongst others, in the Philippines, Honduras, Romania, the United Kingdom (Scotland) and Spain.

How is media development affected?

In certain countries, the trend goes hand in hand with a more general clampdown on freedom of expression and independent media. As a result, public accountability of governments’ responses to COVID-19 is severely hampered. The UN, international civil society, academics and the media have already raised alarms about the impact on human rights in the current situation.

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by Gerwin De Roy, Akademie

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