Freedom of expression: How informed voice ensures we leave no one behind

In 2015, world leaders of 191 countries pledged to combat poverty and strive for peace and prosperity for all people, everywhere, by 2030. 

Known as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, these commitments provide a shared roadmap for the world to work towards ending poverty; achieving good health, education, equality, and decent work for all; and preserving our planet, now and for future generations.  

We are already halfway to 2030 – and we still have a long way to go. 

A defining experience of poverty, as described by poor people from nearly 60 countries, is the inability to speak out against the injustices they face or to make their voices heard to influence what decisions are made on their behalf. This inability to control what happens to their own lives is rooted in the fact that the world’s poorest people are the least able to obtain and share information – especially about their rights or the basic services due to them as citizens, workers, or pensioners. These people are also the least able to network or organise collectively. As a result, they are unable to ask for or obtain what they are entitled to, excluded from public debate, and prevented from representing their own interests.

In other words, this is a vicious cycle. 

Those who are poor have no voice – and having no voice keeps them stuck in poverty. 

The right to freedom of expression, which consists of the right to know and the right to speak, is at the heart of dismantling poverty. It is only when people are both informed and consulted that they can meaningfully participate in making decisions that affect their own lives. 

And it is only when people raise their voices together that they can demand the change they need. 

Free expression empowers people to move from being passive recipients of development efforts to active participants. This, in turn, makes that development stronger and more sustainable.

Only freedom of expression – that is, informed voice – can get us over the line.

What needs to change?

We are calling on world leaders to:

  1. Improve the quality of RTI laws worldwide;
  2. Explicitly recognise that freedom of expression is critical to achieving all the SDGs; and 
  3. Provide more effective and transparent monitoring of RTI laws and the safety of journalists, human rights defenders, and whistleblowers.

Only freedom of expression can empower everyone, everywhere, to speak up and demand all our other rights – like healthcare, education, and climate action – which our governments have pledged to deliver by 2030. 

Find out more

Why is freedom of expression the key that unlocks sustainable development?

Freedom of expression, which includes both the right to speak and the right to information (RTI), is critical to sustainable development because:

  • It enables us to find out what’s going on – and what’s going wrong – inside our governments and public institutions. 
  • It equips us with the knowledge we need to hold our leaders accountable for their obligations to us, like providing good healthcare, quality education, and clean water. 
  • And it empowers us to speak out and demand better – for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our planet. 

In other words, freedom of expression ensures that all people, everywhere, are informed; it enables dialogue; it helps the public to recognise truth; and it contributes to collective knowledge.

Key questions answered

If sustainable development is to be realised, all people need the freedom to participate in public life, to put forward ideas, to discuss and debate societal issues, to criticise and challenge those who fail to keep their promises, and to demand – without fear of recrimination or discrimination – that our governments uphold their obligations. 

Yet governments and corporations often silence or ignore marginalised groups and those most at risk of discrimination, whom development initiatives set out to serve. This perpetuates inefficient – and sometimes corrupt – governance that keeps oppressed groups  in a subordinate position. 

Freedom of expression allows individuals and communities to be active participants in resolving the issues that affect them the most – like poverty, inequality, and climate change – which improves their lives and ensures that development is not only needs-based but truly sustainable.

Around the world, societies tend to undervalue the knowledge and experience of their poorest members, ignoring their perspectives on their own needs and their solutions to their own problems. 

If we truly want to eradicate poverty, we need to ensure poor people have access to relevant information to make their own informed decisions and to claim all their other rights. The free flow of information strengthens accountability and transparency, prevents corruption, and increases the capacity of community groups to participate in policy-making. This makes markets and governments more efficient, transparent, and accountable, and makes the institutions and organisations that serve the poor more effective. 

That’s why the importance of access to information has been explicitly recognised in international standards on the rights to water, health, and education, and in international agreements on pollution, climate change, and migrants.

Sustainable development requires an enabling legal and policy environment in which freedom of expression and an independent media are respected and can thrive. 

This means building constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and information; abolishing laws that repress the media; developing and adopting dedicated RTI laws; decriminalising defamation (and ending the abuse of defamation laws by those in power to stifle legitimate criticism and investigative journalism); and eliminating discriminatory laws, policies, and practices that prevent marginalised groups from enjoying equality and fully participating in society. 

But while laws are a highly necessary condition for both freedom of expression and sustainable development, on their own, they are not sufficient. We also need to improve policy, practice, behaviours, and institutions.

The RTI gives people the ability to know what public institutions are doing. When those institutions are open and transparent, people can scrutinise how they make decisions and how public officials behave. This is crucial to expose wrongdoing and fight against corruption. 

In the context of development, the RTI can encourage foreign investment and aid, as it gives investors and institutions more certainty that their funds will not be diverted for individual gain. 

Openness and transparency also have a direct impact on the ability of journalists and the media to access information, investigate and expose wrongdoing, and impart this information to the public. They also ensure that whistleblowers who expose corruption are protected.

The RTI is crucial for ensuring public funds are acquired and spent appropriately, to prevent illegal activities such as tax evasion, money laundering, trafficking, illegal mining, or deforestation. These activities concentrate wealth by robbing national resources and preventing sustainable development. Transparency and the RTI are therefore vital tools to expose and prevent such activities and ensure that public procurement, social benefits, and public services benefit those who need them most.

3 times expression has supercharged development

Thailand: Land redistributed from palm-oil companies to farmers 

Uganda: Local resident and journalist join forces to turn the taps back on 

Spain: Journalist exposes fisheries’ misuse of public funds 

Yet development efforts often neglect freedom of expression 

Despite freedom of expression being critical to sustainable development, it is often neglected within development programmes and policies.

This is detrimental for us all – but especially for the poorest and most marginalised people, who bear the brunt of bad laws, practices, and behaviour, and who should be at the centre of global development initiatives.

Of the 17 ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SDG 16 is one such initiative measuring countries’ progress on guaranteeing our RTI and protecting journalists, who play a crucial role in providing us with the information we need. 

But as an enabling right, freedom of expression is the key to unlocking the benefits in all the SDGs: from ending poverty and hunger to creating decent jobs and clean energy. If world leaders are serious about ensuring that everyone, everywhere, enjoys a better quality of life by 2030, this must be recognised – and acted on.

Progress on our right to information worldwide

In the context of Goal 16, there has been substantial progress in the adoption of RTI laws around the world.

On paper, then, the RTI is a huge global success story. 

In reality, however, the gap between policy and practice is stark.

Share this infographic

Policy vs. practice in the right to information

Despite most countries now having an RTI law, not all such laws are created equal.

Inconsistent standards

Many RTI laws do not fulfil international standards regarding which authorities must disclose information, what they can refuse to disclose and why, who can request information, and more. 

Insufficient monitoring

Yet the UN, which is responsible for assessing global progress on RTI laws, only monitors the number of countries with such laws, rather than whether those laws actually improve people’s everyday lives. This risks overlooking people’s lived experiences and lulling the international community into a false sense of security. 

Inadequate instruments

Furthermore, several countries make a cursory reference to the RTI in their constitutions but fail to pass a dedicated law that would make the right a reality. This allows states to claim that they protect the RTI when, on the ground, the people in their country have no way to access the information they need to demand improvements to their quality of life. 

On their own, laws are not enough to improve our lives – and even a perfect law isn’t worth the paper it’s written on unless it’s properly implemented. ARTICLE 19 witnesses the damage caused by this implementation gap in our work with underserved communities worldwide:

  • In Mexico, which has had an RTI law since 2002, our work with Indigenous women in Chiapas found that they didn’t know about Covid-19 because information circulated by the authorities was not published in their languages. Mexico’s record as the deadliest country in the world for journalists (who are essential to providing the public with accurate information) further shows that laws alone are not enough; we also need peace, justice, and strong institutions.
  • In Brazil, the RTI is protected in the Constitution, a federal law, and a statute. Yet our research found that only half of 34 healthcare facilities shared information about abortion services for survivors of sexual violence (one of the few circumstances in which abortion is legal in Brazil). In 2022, nearly 75,000 rapes were reported in Brazil – and in 60% of cases, the victim was younger than 14 years old.
  • In Tunisia, which passed an RTI law in 2007, we found that rural women in the southwest region of Gafsa and Kebilli cannot access information about health services because they are mostly illiterate and do not have access to the internet, whereas health providers publish written information on a digital platform.

Yet the UN does not measure implementation when it reviews states’ progress, which means that states can get away with making promises on paper that don’t translate into real-world improvements. 

There is a complete lack of data to measure progress in RTI laws, which hinders the effectiveness of international frameworks – like the SDGs. While UNESCO is responsible for monitoring progress towards the SDGs, state institutions assess their own progress on the RTI, which inevitably leads to bias. Furthermore, not all states respond to UNESCO’s requests for information, and some provide out-of-date data. 

UNESCO does not publish countries’ responses to its questions about RTI laws – and, while it assigns a score to each country, it does not publish these scores. This prevents people from monitoring their country’s progress and calling for meaningful improvements. It also means that the very agency responsible for monitoring transparency and accountability is itself failing to be transparent and accountable.

Ukrainian journalist filming in a village after it was freed from Russian occupation

The role of journalists and human rights defenders in development 

How ARTICLE 19 uses expression to deliver development

Senegal: Injured mothers ask for – and receive – medical treatment

Mexico: Rural women successfully demand a village doctor

Kenya: Displaced communities secure a future

Indonesia: Marginalised parents hold school accountable

Brazil: Thousands of Indigenous people’s lives saved during Covid-19 

What needs to change?

We are calling on world leaders to:

  1. Improve the quality of RTI laws worldwide;
  2. Explicitly recognise that freedom of expression is critical to achieving all the SDGs; and 
  3. Provide more effective and transparent monitoring of RTI laws and the safety of journalists, human rights defenders, and whistleblowers.
Read our briefing
Share our briefing
Support this work

Learn more about ARTICLE 19’s work on sustainable development

Tackling gender inequality through access to information
Open development: Access to information and the Sustainable Development Goals
A deadly shade of green: Threats to environmental human rights defenders in Latin America
The public’s right to know: Principles on RTI legislation
The free flow principles: Freedom of expression and the rights to water and sanitation
A healthy knowledge: The RTI and the right to health
The London declaration for transparency, the free flow of information and development
Model freedom of information law
Share our briefing
Share this page
Support our work