Commitments to greater media freedom and public access to information have been cut from a draft pact on post-2015 global development, barely days after campaigners had been told they had successfully won a place for them in the text.
As the pact’s drafters reconvene this week and next, they face calls to restore the cut commitments – especially on open access to and effective use of data, which the UN’s own review of the preceding 15 years of development work says is essential to meeting future development goals.
“The monitoring experience of the MDGs has shown that data will play a central role in advancing the new development agenda,” said the Millennium Development Goals Report 2014 report, released on July 7. “We need sustainable data to support sustainable development.”
A post-2015 list of 17 draft Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will succeed the 2000-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and will apply to all countries, not just the global South as before.
“None of the draft SDGs is more contentious than the proposed governance goal,” wrote Bill Orme for the Global Forum for Media Development this week, “Goal 16: “Achieve peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice for all, and effective and capable institutions.”
Free expression campaigners wanted goal 16 to recognise media freedom and public right to information. But the core drafting team, the Open Working Group (OWG) representing 69 countries, have blown hot and cold on both commitments as they prepare a base level ‘Zero Draft’ version for submission to the UN General Assembly for consideration in August 2014.
In June the OWG added specific commitments to “improve public access to information and government data” and – despite the earlier resistance of the Group – to promote freedom of media, association, and speech.
More than 200 free expression organisations supported the reforms including London-based Human Rights House Network members Index on Censorship, English PEN and Article 19, the co-organiser of the lobby with the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) in Brussels.
They were also in line with the conclusions of a High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons, co-chaired by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
The High-Level Panel concluded that one way to ensure good governance and effective institutions after 2015 would be to “ensure people enjoy freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest, and access to independent media and information”.
Another way would be to “guarantee the public’s right to information and access to government data.” But the principles did not survive a second rewrite in July, according to a report by the UN’s IRIN news service on July 2.
References to ‘media freedom and public access to information’ were cut and commitments limited to the simple ‘promotion’ – rather than actual ‘improvement’ – of “free and easy access to information, freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly”.
As Orme noted, “there is no specific mention of media, nor of governments’ affirmative responsibility to provide public information about their activities or expenditures or legal rulings or progress in health or education and environmental protection. Or anything else.”
Fackson Banda, who works on free expression and media development issues with UNESCO, told IRIN that “in its attempts at economy and simplicity, the OWG may lose sight of some cardinal elements which were previously part of the proposed goals and targets.“
These ‘cardinal elements’ should be restored. The Open Working Group met again this week and will begin its final session, the thirteenth, on 14 July.
The original alliance of free expression groups, coordinated by Article 19 and the GFMD and supported by Human Rights House London, will be repeating their call for Goal 16 to include clearer commitments to media freedoms and public right to information.