How the COVID-19 pandemic is experienced around the world differs depending on the severity of the outbreak in different locations as well as the responses deployed to address it. But how the pandemic is experienced also depends on what information is accessible. The crisis has exposed, and in many cases amplified, false, manipulated, and misleading information – from state as well as non-state sources – on the nature of the pandemic and the efficacy of crisis response efforts. Oftentimes, misinformation and disinformation are accompanied by hate speech and discrimination and increased marginalization of different groups. And while these phenomena are not new, the pandemic has brought them to the forefront of our lives and pose a very real threat to the protection of human rights.
Access to accurate information has been a lifeline for many throughout the pandemic. Journalists and media workers have played a key role in popularizing and disseminating potentially life-saving scientific information to citizens around the globe, at times in the face of national authorities censoring, if not threatening, members of the media for their coverage. Journalism has had a critical role in fact-checking falsehoods and in countering disinformation, conspiracy theories and hate speech.
The way in which governments facilitate an enabling environment for access to information is critical. For example, research has shown that those countries with public service media have proven more resilient to disinformation, have better public health outcomes, improved trust in government and less polarization citizens. Differing media environments, including levels of political polarization and economic incentives to produce fake news, create varying levels of susceptibility to disinformation. As UNDP’s Haoliang Xu and Sarah Lister point out, “maintaining healthy information ecosystems is a shared responsibility”.
Though the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated a host of threats to the free access of information – and those who provide it – many stakeholders, including intergovernmental organizations are pushing back. Organizations such as UNESCO is, for instance, tracking progress on the adoption and implementation of laws and policies for public access to information through SDG 16 indicator 10.2. It has developed a reporting tool – or a survey template – based on the indicator in order to collect annual data from UN Member States. By taking part in the Survey, progress vis-à-vis access to information can be measured and integrated into important reporting exercises at national levels, including in the preparation of Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), which are submitted to the UN High-Level Political Forum.
Some UN Member States are taking this review process seriously. In their 2017 VNR, Sweden recognized that public access to information protects fundamental liberties. Similarly, Nigeria and Sierra Leone view Indicator 16.10.2 through the prism of human rights and noted that its achievement ensures “public access to information” and “protects fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.”
Access to information has, despite challenges, also found its way into national legislation. To date, as many as 127 countries have adopted Access to Information laws, compared to only 14 countries in 1990. Inclusive reporting, legislation and policy are all important means of ensuring access to information and that governments are held accountable to those they represent. Within the context of the pandemic, access to information is also linked to the promotion of transparency - a key feature in preventing corruption. Together with public participation in decision-making, transparency helps to prevent corruption in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the growing adoption of access to information laws the International Press Institute recently reported that 90 countries instigated legislative measures that impede freedom of expression and information since COVID 19. In its 2020 report, “Democracy under Lockdown,” Freedom House found that 91 out of 192 countries imposed some form of restriction on media as part of their official pandemic response. The International Press Institute’s COVID-19 Press Freedom Tracker reports 646 press freedom violations linked to COVID-19 to date.
As the world continues to grapple with the fallouts of the COVID-19 pandemic, protecting access to information and reporting on progress towards this aim, is more critical than ever to our collective well-being, health and to prospects of an equitable recovery. In the words of Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General, “In a world where COVID-19 has caused chaos and complexity, access to reliable and verified information is more important than ever. Information is essential for encouraging healthy behaviours and saving lives – rumours and inaccurate information can be as lethal as viruses.”