The Statistical Commission Speaks: First Indications of Access to Information in the SDGs

Access to Information via GFMD

Next week, from March 23rd through the 27th, the UN General Assembly will for the first time directly discuss the specifics of the 17 proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their 169 associated ‘targets’ – and the multiple yet-to-be-assigned factual ‘indicators’ by which the UN will measure progress towards these goals.

There are many outside and inside the UN who believe those proposed SDGs are simply too many, too complex, and in some cases too “aspirational”  to be fully achievable by the 2030  deadline. Yet it now seems unlikely that any of the draft goals will be substantially revamped, much less discarded, as a result of these discussions.

To the contrary: There is an emerging General Assembly consensus in favor of  retaining all 17 of the goals recommended by its  post-2015 “Open Working Group” last year.  Almost every country has something in that package of 17 draft SDGs that they want to see kept and fear could be jeopardized if the negotiations are reopened.

This includes draft Target 16.10, which states that all UN members should “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.” 

The proposed Goal 16 target on access to information now appears safe, rather surprisingly so. This is a major advance. But its final, meaningful, measurable inclusion in the SDGs is not yet assured.

The proverbial devil is as always in the details, and the critical operative details will be the target’s UN data indicators – and who chooses those indicators, and how and why. And initial indications of the UN’s possible access to information indicators indicate both technical doubts and political misgivings about the target itself.

On March 18th, the UN Statistical Commission provided the General Assembly with its first formal assessment of proposed SDGs indicators, based on recommendations from a ‘virtual consultation’ conducted by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) with selected development experts inside and outside the UN.

The Commission, representing the national statistical agencies of all 193  UN member states, will make its final selection of indicators for all the post-2015 goals and targets several months after the SDGs are adopted at the UN this September.  The indicators will be ratified by the General Assembly in 2016, after their formal endorsement by the Statistical Commission at its annual meeting next March (See more detail on the role of the UN Statistical Commission and the process for selecting SDGs indicators).

Participating national statistical agencies were asked by the Commission to rate on a scale of A to C the feasibility, suitability and relevance  – respectively – of the “proposed provisional indicators” for each target. Grades were assigned accordingly:

  • Feasibility

A: Easily feasible (methodology exists and data is available)

B: Feasible with strong effort

C: Difficult, even with strong effor

  • Suitability

A: We support this indicator

B: We need to discuss and/or consider other indicators

C: We do not support this indicator

  • Relevance

A: Very relevant

B: Somewhat relevant

C: Not relevant

The Statistics Commission looked at two recommended indicators for Target 16.10:

  •  1)Indicator 16.10.1:  Percentage of actual government budget, procurement, revenues and natural resource concessions that are publicly available and easily accessible
  •  2)Indicator 16.10.2: Number of journalists, associated media personnel and human rights advocates killed, kidnapped, disappeared, detained or tortured in the last 12 months

The first indicator received an average rating from consulted member states of “BBA” – indicating that it was deemed possible to measure “with strong effort,” but that alternatives should be considered, as it was is just “somewhat relevant” to the target.

The second was rated still lower – “CBB” – meaning that it was seen as too “difficult” for the UN to measure, was again only “somewhat relevant,” and other indicators should therefore be discussed.

Neither got a passing grade – the ‘triple A’ rating of very high perceived feasibility, suitability and relevance that the Statistical Commission strongly prefers, and conferred on proposed indicators for many of the other proposed 169 SDGs targets.

 Yet the Commission cannot be faulted for its doubts and hesitancy, as the two proposed access-to-information indicators were highly flawed, methodologically and normatively, even if they were judged to be politically palatable – which they aren’t.

The Commission can be faulted, however, for its exclusive reliance on the recommendations from DESA, rather than also taking into account the parallel recommendations of the UN-supported Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), which drew in turn  on proposals from many civil society groups. The SDSN proposal was presented to the UN Statistics Commission last month, but has not yet been formally reviewed by the Commission and its member agencies.

Proposed 16.10 Access to Information Indicator #1

The SDSN proposal is consistent with recommendations from GFMD and Article 19 for monitoring legal guarantees of the public’s right to information. The DESA indicator, by contrast, proposes to measure access to information by this statistical metric: Percentage of actual government budget, procurement, revenues and natural resource concessions that are publicly available and easily accessible.”

This latter proposal is poorly conceived on several levels, from the philosophical to the mathematical.

First, it limits the scope of ‘accessible information’ to government fiscal and contractual data – important, yes, but just a small sliver of the public information required to assess progress towards all 17 goals, and an even tinier fraction of the wide universe of information we need to make informed choices about our futures.

Second, it adopts a narrow ‘supply-side’ measure of compliance – what governments choose to divulge – rather than a rights-based approach, rooted in the principle that members of the public should have legally guaranteed access to what should be public information, whether from governments or elsewhere.

Finally, even disregarding the first two objections, this indicator would operate on the peculiar presumption that there is some objective way to know and arithmetically measure the full range of budgetary and contractual information maintained by public institutions in all countries, whether publicly disclosed or not, and then calculate what percentage of that data is secret – as an official statistic!

Simpler, and far better, is the SDSN alternative: “Existence and implementation of a national law and/or constitutional guarantee on the right to information.”

This indicator is not only rights-based, but includes an irrefutably factual test: Is there an access-to-information statute or constitutional provision, or not?  A majority of  UN member-states have already adopted such legal guarantees, most in the past decade. A goal of universal national compliance with this proposed SDG commitment would seem wholly defensible, practicably attainable, and easily measurable.

As the SDSN notes,  “Public access to information helps ensure institutional accountability and transparency. It is important to measure both the existence of such a framework and its implementation, as good laws may exist but they may not be enforced. This can be simply be due to a lack of capacity, more systematic institutional resistance, or a culture of secrecy or corruption.”

Passage of an access-to-information law is of course only the first step. Monitoring  ‘implementation’ of A2I laws is complex, and politically challenging, as it necessarily includes analysis of press freedom realities, broader freedom of expression considerations, and citizens’ access to this information, especially digitally.

Yet adoption and enforcement of legal guarantees is key.  Simply tracking voluntary government disclosure of official information is almost ludicrously insufficient.

 Proposed 16.10 Access to Information Indicator #2

 Without an independent press freely obtaining and openly analyzing and widely disseminating information relevant to the SDGs, a pro forma legal guarantee of ‘access to information’ is meaningless – as most UN and member-state officials, statisticians included, would readily agree.  This understanding is already implicit in the draft language of Target 10: The ‘fundamental freedoms’ it cites include freedom of expression, as enshrined in Article 19 of both the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its legally binding International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which state that all people in all countries should be free to ‘seek, receive and impart information, through any media, and regardless of frontiers.’

Encouragingly, both sets of proposed SDGs indicators accept that basic premise, and propose a second access-to-information indicator on press freedom. Their proposals are similar, focused statistically on the killings and kidnappings of journalists:

  •  DESA:Number of journalists, associated media personnel and human rights advocates killed, kidnapped, disappeared, detained or tortured in the last 12 months.
  • SDSN:  Number of journalists and associated media personnel that are physically attacked, unlawfully detained or killed as a result of pursuing their legitimate activities.

This is to be commended, conceptually. But as a stand-alone indicator it is unlikely to be accepted by UN member states, either politically or statistically, as the Commission’s initial ‘CBB’ ratings suggests.  Nor, arguably, does it need to be, as more contextualized press freedom assessments are already in use by the UN.  The UN Statistics Commission could instead empower UNESCO, as the UN agency with a mandate to promote press freedom, to provide what the Commission calls ‘expert reviews’ – analytical reports that interpret and complement data-based indicators.

UNESCO research on press freedom and independent media development  already informs its annual World Press Freedom Day reports and awards as well as the statements by its Director-General condemning murders of journalists. Its reports go beyond these tallies of  threats and violence,  taking into account the overall national legal, political, cultural and economic context in which local media operate.

UNESCO was also assigned lead responsibility for the 2012 “UN Action Plan on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity,” based on Security Council and General Assembly resolutions advocating a “free and safe environment for journalists and media workers, both in conflict and non-conflict situations, with a view to strengthening peace, democracy and development worldwide.”  The Action Plan also calls on UN agencies to coordinate and report on support for countries to pass legislation “favorable to freedom of expression and information.” This could all be directly incorporated into a press freedom measurement process for Target 16.10.

Unquestionably, the abductions and assassination of working journalists are grave violations of human rights – not only of the rights of the victims themselves, but the rights of all people, as these are deliberate acts of censorship and intimidation aimed ultimately at the public’s right to know.  All such cases should be rigorously documented, publicly denounced and aggressively prosecuted by the appropriate authorities. And much more should be done to safeguard the ability of journalists to work freely and safely, without fear of violent reprisal.

But the number of job-related deaths or kidnappings of journalists in any given country should not be used as a statistical ‘proxy’ for press freedom – because it isn’t. Countries where few or no independent journalists are allowed to operate have by definition few cases of journalists killed, or abducted, or imprisoned.  Looking at such a figure in isolation can be highly misleading.

In conflict zones, such as in Syria and Iraq and Mali, journalists are killed and kidnapped by and while covering insurgents waging war against local authorities. Many journalists have also been killed in recent years in countries such as Mexico and the Philippines that are increasingly open and democratic, with more news organizations reporting on criminal gangs and political corruption – and with more reporters murdered in reprisal by the targets of their reporting.  The country with the highest number of journalists killed this year to date? France, because of the tragic Charlie Hebdo massacre. Should France rank last on a UN press freedom list?

Governments should be held to account for their responsibility to bring these killers to justice. The incidence of unpunished murders of journalists is a better inversely correlating press freedom indicator than the number of fatalities alone, but that can be measured reliably only over time, by independent experts, taking into account such factors as government capacity and armed conflict and overall homicide rates.  That’s why the Committee to Protect Journalists now produces an ‘impunity index’ in addition to its authoritative annual documentation of journalists killed and imprisoned. But a UN agency or any other intergovernmental institution would be ill-equipped practically and politically to undertake such a task.

Kidnappings of journalists– a related and growing problem – are inherently difficult to track in any systematic manner. Most cases are not even reported in real time, due to their criminal, clandestine nature, the ruthlessness of the perpetrators, and concerns that publicity could thwart efforts to secure hostages’ release. And governments are rarely complicit in these cases.

The prosecution and imprisonment of journalists is a better measure of official behavior toward the press, but it is problematic, to say the least, for a UN agency like UNESCO, or any similar intergovernmental institution, to challenge the legal or evidentiary basis of judicial actions by their own member states.

Press freedom is a precondition for access to information, which the SDG indicators must reflect. Without independent media dissemination and debate and analysis, information from governments and others – including data directly pertinent to all of the proposed goals and target – would not even reach most people in the world, much less be considered significant or credible.

But to monitor press freedom fairly and rigorously, with the aim of expanding open public access everywhere to all information as part of the UN’s universal new development goals, it must be assessed analytically, as an integral aspect of our “fundamental freedoms,” rather than simply statistically, as numbers alone.

This post originally appeared on the Global Forum for Media Development’s website.

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