Ensuring the public’s right to know in the COVID-19 pandemic

In responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, many governments have taken measures that limit access to information held by public bodies relating to the pandemic and other crucial areas of public interest. For many of those governments, ensuring public access to information is often not seen as important or as a priority because public functions and services are being reduced or reallocated. For others, secrecy is being imposed to try and limit criticism of poor decision-making or as part of a larger effort to restrict human rights or hide corruption. These limitations violate international law’s obligations on access to information and public health.

 “This is a time when, more than ever, governments need to be open and transparent, responsive and accountable to the people they are seeking to protect.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, April 2020

The reduction in the public’s right to know about the activities of their governments is counterproductive to the effort in combating the COVID-19 outbreak – the right to information is crucial for ensuring public awareness and trust, fighting misinformation, ensuring accountability as well as developing and monitoring implementation of public policies aimed at solving the crisis. It is crucial that the right to information is maintained during the emergency as much as possible.

Furthermore, governments are required to inform the public about the pandemic and the measures they are implementing by taking proactive steps to ensure the public have access to information that is necessary to inform and respond to the outbreak.

This document reviews access to information obligations that should be maintained, and proposes a list of key information and data sets that should be proactively published by authorities to facilitate the fight against COVID-19 and ensure accountability. It is intended to assist governments, civil society, and media in identifying key information and data that should be released based on experiences from across the world during this pandemic and previous crises.

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