Urgent need for measures, systems to address barriers to the use of online spaces for access to information
Lusaka, 28th September 2023: In commemorating the 2023 edition of the International Day for Universal Access to Information Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) calls on governments, civil society, the media, and other stakeholders in Southern Africa to work together to identify and address barriers to the use of online spaces for access to information.
Since its proclamation on 5th October 2019 at the 74th United Nations General Assembly, the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) is commemorated annually on 28th September. This year’s commemoration is under the theme “The Importance of the Online Space for Access to Information.”
This year’s IDUAI commemoration comes at a time when there is increased use of the online space for access to information. The internet has become an invaluable resource for everyone, a key means of access to information, transforming the way people communicate. It is therefore important that we recognize and address the challenges that hinder universal access to information in the online sphere. These include limited public awareness of the online spaces for accessing information, and low levels of digital literacy among users of online spaces.
The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in 2019 recognizes the “role of new digital technologies in the realization of the rights to freedom of expression and access to information …affirming that the same rights that people have offline should be protected online …” The Declaration of Principles also “recognise that universal, equitable, affordable, and meaningful access to the internet is necessary for the realisation of freedom of expression, access to information and the exercise of other human rights”.
Panos believes that universal access to information is a cornerstone of democracy, enabling informed decision-making, fostering transparency, and driving social and economic development. Online spaces provide one of the most effective channels for the realisation of this right. We therefore stress the need for the enactment and implementation of progressive Access to Information laws to address these challenges while safeguarding freedom of expression.
Online spaces like websites and social media platforms can effectively enable proactive disclosure of public information. They can also enable citizens to quickly and effectively engage and share information with different stakeholders, including decision makers.
Lack of awareness on the importance of online spaces, has laid bare the digital divide, which disproportionately affects marginalized and less privileged communities. This divide threatens to deepen existing inequalities, making citizens not utilize online spaces to the fullest to express themselves and exercise their freedom of speech on matters that affect them economically and socially therefore slowing down development.
Panos continues to advocate for policies and practices that promote universal access to information, and calls on governments, civil society organizations, the media, and all stakeholders to unite in their commitment to ensuring equitable access to the online space.
We urge governments in Southern Africa to develop and implement policies to bridge the digital divide, ensuring that every citizen has affordable and reliable access to the internet. We also urge the private sector and cooperating partners to invest in infrastructure and technologies that expand internet coverage and affordability, while also respecting and protecting user privacy and data, the civil society to advocate for the rights of marginalized communities in the online space, promoting digital literacy, and providing support for those who are digitally excluded, and the media to produce and share information that is accurate, unbiased, and accessible to all, fostering a culture of responsible online reporting.
Panos reiterates its commitment to amplifying voices of the poor and marginalized, championing the right to access information as a cornerstone of sustainable development. We believe that by working together and prioritizing this essential right, we can create a more equitable, informed, and connected global community.
Executive Director, Panos Institute Southern Africa