Freedom of Information Contributes to a Free Press

As difficult as it sometimes can be to navigate our Freedom of Information Act in the U.S., the Act contributes to press freedom– a freedom that only one in six of the world’s inhabitants has, according to statistics released this week during  World Press Freedom Day.

Free expression advocates from around the world gathered in Washington, D.C., this week to celebrate the first-ever U.S.-hosted World Press Freedom Day. Freedom of information laws and open government issues play a central role in promoting a free press and democracy, and were an overarching theme in many of the conference’s sessions.

“There’s a huge open government movement right now in the journalism and technology side of things,” remarked Brant Houston, a long-time investigative journalist who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The theme of this year’s three-day meeting was “21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers.” Sessions held at the Newseum and the National Press Club focused on the challenges and benefits of digital journalism, including social media.

In a panel discussion devoted to investigative journalism, journalist David Kaplan noted that the lack of access to public records remains a worldwide problem. Journalist Stefan Candea said despite having a freedom of information law in his native Romania, “there is a culture of non-transparency because of our communist past.”

The statistics on global press freedom standings are released annually by Freedom House, an organization that works to expand freedom around the world.  The adoption of a new Freedom of Information Act in Liberia increased that country’s standing in the survey, but the law must be followed in order to truly contribute to a free press, Freedom House staff noted.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) marks World Press Freedom Day each year on May 3. Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights directly supports the freedom of expression and the right to receive and disseminate information.

The 2010 World Press Freedom Day was celebrated in Brisbane, Australia, where its participants adopted a declaration specifically promoting freedom of information and the right to know.