As part of UNESCO’s International Day for Universal Access to Information, civil society – Peace and Justice Network with partners including the Pakistan Information Commission and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands held a conference in Islamabad on September 28, 2023.
Taking this year’s global agenda “the importance of online space for Access to Information” forward, the national conference mapped priorities to address challenges faced by marginalized in accessing information online. It is crucial for persons with disabilities, transgender and religious minorities, etc., to have equal access to information to promote inclusivity. The information and its access if effectively utilized can become a means for empowerment, justice, and equal participation in society.
Keeping the United Nations' shared value of “leaving no one behind” at the core, it is imperative to ensure that these groups leverage online spaces. The online space(s) have become an indispensable resource for many communities, including marginalized groups. They are not only offering a space to engage in public discourse but is an earning source. Marginalized communities already stigmatized can leverage these spaces to uplift themselves socially and economically. Therefore, it is necessary to realize that online spaces and by extension internet needs to be integrated with rights perspective. An approach developed by UNESCO that safeguards rights, is open and accessible for all and consists of represents pluralism.
Senator Farhatullah Babar highlighted the need for government institutions to enhance access to information to strengthen democratic values in the country. On strengthening the role of information commissions Chief Information Commissioner, Shoaib Ahmad Siddiqui stressed on the need for more proactive disclosure to promote a culture of accountability and transparency.
Deputy Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, H.E. Mr. Hajo Provo Kluit recognized the importance of access to information for marginalized groups in ensuring stronger institutions.
During the session ‘Connecting the Disconnected’ moderated by Farieha Aziz, Co- founder Bolo Bhi, experts Mukhtar Ahmed Ali, Mary James Gill, Usama Khilji and Barrister Yasser Latif Hamdani presented the challenges citizens face when the government shutdown or restrict people’s Internet access, as this severely restrict their ability to exercise their rights, including the right to access information, and engage in democratic processes. They all highlighted the need for a strong policy framework to address internet disruptions, ensuring access to information and protecting fundamental rights.
To sensitize key stakeholders about access to information online specifically for marginalized groups, a session moderated by Ms. Nayyab Ali, Gender Advisor PJN, and Syed Raza Ali CEO PJN. After extensive deliberations by the representatives from marginalized communities, key experts from diverse backgrounds Moon Ali, Abia Akram, Mary James Gill, Jayaa Jaggi and Syed Raza Ali prepared recommendations and presented their plans to duty bearers including the Ministry of Human Rights, Information Commission, and Information and Broadcasting. They highlighted the need to address the digital divide and steps for safe digital space for marginalized communities.
The event helped in building the understanding of marginalized communities for effectively utilizing their right to access information, especially in online space and also provided consultative opportunities to the representatives of minorities, persons with disabilities, youth, and the transgender community to develop and present action plans to policymakers to address barriers to access to information for empowerment, justice, and their equal participation in the socio-political fabric of a country.
As custodians of access to information and fundamental rights, the Information Commissioners Farah Hamid Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Chief Information Commissioner, Dr. Jawaid Ali Shah, Chief Information Commissioner, and Shaukat Ali, Punjab Provincial Information Commissioner, as well as Chairperson, Peace & Justice Network Nasruminallah Mian, provided their inputs to the policy recommendations during the session ‘Information Access Enablers - Public Institutions custodian of ensuring access to information’ moderated by Chaudhry Shafique, Executive Director Parliamentarians Commission for Human Rights. These policy recommendations will be further shared with the Pakistan Information Commission.
The caretaker minister for Human Rights, Khalil George concluded the proceedings with a resolve to protect fundamental rights of marginalized groups.
The 74th UN General Assembly proclaimed 28 September as the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI). UNESCO as the custodian agency strives for progress on SDG indicator 16.10.2: to support member states to adopt and implement constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information.