Observacom
Análisis - Global

And what about communication in Sustainable Development Goals?

“… Communication is not one of the Sustainable Development Goals, although Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) are mentioned. Neither is there any trace of the right to freedom of expression…”

Silvia Chocarro Marcesse*/ November 2015.

Español|Portuguese

“… Communication is not one of the Sustainable Development Goals, although Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) are mentioned. Neither is there any trace of the right to freedom of expression…”

Silvia Chocarro Marcesse*/ November 2015.

Let’s go to the website of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as approved by the United Nations (UN) and look for the word “communication” among the 17 objectives and their 169 goals. What role does communication play in this new global agenda for development through 2030? Communication is not one of the SDGs, although Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) are mentioned. Neither is there any trace of the right to freedom of expression. There is, however, some good news: the SDGs do recognize citizens’ access to information as a fundamental factor in the development of democratic and participatory societies.

Communication as an instrument and not as a right

It is not new in the area of development that communication is presented from an instrumental perspective, linked to access to ICTs as a means of achieving other aims. Regrettably, it would have been much more groundbreaking if communication had been included among the SDGs as a basic human right. Moreover, and apart from the undeniable importance of ICTs in our respective societies, their inclusion in the SDGs continues to be very limited. The commitment to strengthen access and use of ICTs is directed towards the so-called least developed countries, and is only an objective in global terms in the case of promoting women’s empowerment.

I’m sure that it would seem obvious to anyone that communication occupies an important place in any list of good intentions to build a better society for the 21st century, but apparently not when such discussions involve commitments and guarantees from governments. In this context, recognition of the right to freedom of opinion or expression, or the right of access to information, for example, turn into a threat, even though Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states as follows: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Lights and Shadows of communication in the SDG process 

When the process to prepare the SDGs began, more than 200 civil society organizations working together in the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) network and the NGO Article 19 drafted a strategy to promote the inclusion in the SDGs of the rights to freedom of expression and public access to information. Initially, there was some optimism. When in June 2014 the group of 30 countries charged with drafting a proposal for SDGs, the Open Working Group (OWG) presented a first draft, the need to promote such rights was recognized. Goal 16.14 pledged to «enhance public access to information and government data,» while goal 16.17 recognized «the promotion of freedom of expression.» Both were included in objective 16 on achieving «peaceful and inclusive societies, the rule of law and capable and effective institutions.”

Shortly thereafter, in December 2014, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, presented his own proposal summarizing the contributions of two years of debate. His report “The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending poverty, Transforming all Lives and Protecting the Planet” recognizes that freedom of expression and access to information «are enablers of sustainable development.» It was another sign for optimism.

However, the right to freedom of expression did not survive, although access to information did. And it’s not insignificant. The inclusion of these six words: “to guarantee public access to information” is the result of days, weeks and months of work and the generation of awareness on the part of civil society, and mainly thanks to the GFMD and Article 19. Finally, in the final version of the SDGs adopted in September 2015 by the UN General Assembly, goal 16-10 reads as follows: “to ensure public access to information and to protect fundamental freedoms in accordance with national laws and international agreements.” One wonders, however, what fundamental freedoms are being referred to? Or, how is public access to information being defined? And this is where there is still work to be done.

Is there still time for improved SDGs?

The UN is now debating those indicators that will measure the SDGs. And these are indicators that will define their true essence. The second meeting of the committee of specialist statisticians of Member States, known as the “Interagency and Expert Group» (IAEG) took place in late October and will present its proposal for indicators in February. They will decide how the level of public access to information is to be measured. And it will not be the same, for example, to measure it based on the existence of an access law, but rather on the basis not only of its existence but also its effective implementation. And how will the protection of fundamental freedoms be measured? These indicators will be the ones that will ultimately define what fundamental freedoms are referred to by the SDGs.

There are at least two proposals on the table to answer these questions. The GFMD, for example, suggests measuring access to information through “the adoption and implementation of mechanisms and legal safeguards that guarantee public access to information, including but not limited to, information relating to each and every one of the SDGs.” Moreover, there is a proposal related to the goal dealing with fundamental freedoms which states thus: “The number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, forced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists, associated media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates in the previous 12 months.” This second proposal was issued by UNESCO, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

We must therefore stay alert. The SDGs have already been approved, but the definition of their indicators can turn them into transcendental objectives or the opposite. Afterwards we will have to closely monitor their compliance. Our work is not over yet.

(*) Journalist, researcher and consultant for issues related to communications and development. Article published first time in “Otro mundo está en marcha, la blogosfera de la Plataforma 2015 y más. @blogs2015ymas».