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President François Hollande speaks at the opening of the Open Government Partnership summit in Paris in December. Press freedom has been added to the organization's agenda. (Jacky Naegelen/Pool/AFP)

Press freedom on OGP agenda as authoritarianism rises

By Joel Simon/CPJ Executive Director on December 12, 2016 12:34 PM ET

There was poignancy to the Paris summit of the Open Government Partnership, as leaders from government and civil society took the stage to defend a political ideology under siege: liberal democracy. French President François Hollande, who amid weak public support announced he will not seek re-election in 2017, called democracy "so fragile and so precious." His words came at a time when France's far right is gaining momentum.

Sanjay Pradhan, the partnership's chief executive officer, echoed these concerns, calling the Paris summit, which wrapped up December 9, an opportunity "to reinvigorate and deepen democracy in the face of rising authoritarianism and growing citizen distrust in government." (Speeches and other relevant documents are here.)

The OGP, launched in 2011 by U.S. President Barack Obama, brings together a coalition of civil society and governments dedicated to the principle that data and technology can make governments more transparent, efficient, and accountable. In the past five years, the OGP has grown to include more than 70 countries. As opposed to the formal culture of governmental organizations such as the U.N., it is refreshing at OGP meetings to see civil society leaders share the stage and interact informally with their colleagues in government.

But, as the leaders of the OGP acknowledge, the organization has not delivered adequately on its larger goals of increasing accountability, reducing corruption, and improving the lives of ordinary citizens. If Obama hopes the OGP will create a permanent structure to secure his global legacy, then more work needs to be done.

Recognizing the challenge, the OGP is seeking to strengthen the commitments that participating governments make to civil society, which is at the heart of its process. As it was initially conceived, the OGP did not engage adequately with human rights, including the essential rights to freedom of expression and assembly. The fact that countries with weak accountability records met the organization's eligibility criteria fueled rapid growth, but diminished the OGP's credibility.

The OGP has taken some steps to address this challenge. The Paris Declaration, the official summit document, expresses for the first time explicit support for press freedom and rights of journalists, noting, "We will protect, consistent with international law, freedom of expression, including for the press and all media, defend the role of journalism as a crucial force for transparency and accountability, and stand up against attacks and detention of journalists." While the language is hardly stirring, it is a breakthrough, especially given the resistance from several governments.

Many speakers at the opening ceremony used their remarks to highlight the relationship between open government and press freedom, including keynote speaker Marina Walker Guevara, the deputy director of the International Center for Investigative Reporting who recently co-managed the Panama Papers investigation. Walker Guevara called out new member Luxembourg for prosecuting Edouard Perrin, the investigative journalist and whistleblower behind the Luxleaks story. "It seems fully appropriate that [Luxembourg] makes protection of whistleblowers and freedom of expression an integral part of its commitment to open government," Walker Guevara noted.

I would expand on Walker Guevara's point to suggest that all OGP members make a similar commitment. There is a tension between the OGP's efforts to encourage and support reformers and the tendency to provide useful publicity for repressive governments who join the organization but do not change their ways.

In my view, jailing of journalists or indifference toward violence against the media should disqualify counties from joining the OGP since, as I have argued previously, open government is meaningless without a free press.

There is progress to report. Two member countries who are among the world's worst press freedom violators--Turkey and Azerbaijan--have been deemed "inactive," meaning they may not vote in OGP elections until they address concerns raised by civil society organizations. A third, Hungary, resigned on the eve of the summit rather than submit to an ongoing independent review of its commitments. Still, new and prospective members have troubling press freedom records, including Pakistan, Haiti, Afghanistan, and Morocco. Instead of allowing "qualified" members to join immediately, I suggest the OGP institute a three-year waiting period, during which prospective members must make progress and demonstrate an ability to meet ambitious commitments, as verified by an independent review.

A panel organized by CPJ on press freedom for open government discussed strategies that could help ensure the OGP is utilized to support press freedom and the rights of journalists. The key is to bring national press freedom groups into the OGP process, and ensure they have a seat at the table when governments develop their national action plans. These groups should seek to secure commitments related to U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 16, which addresses "Peace, Justice and Effective Institutions." A target for that goal is to "ensure public access to information" and an official indicator is the "number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, assault and torture of journalists, associated media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates in the previous 12 months." I would suggest that OGP members--or prospective members--with poor press freedom records be required to make and meet commitments related to the target.

In her remarks at the opening ceremony, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, noted that people around the world instead of embracing liberal democracy and open government, are "increasingly turning to populists who promise to revert to an isolationist, top-down model of government--one that tends to view civil society as an adversary rather than an ally; and argues, in some places, at least, for retreating from the world and retreating from multilateral efforts like this one."

She added, "What is the value, in fact, of passing a Right to Information Act if people don't understand how to use it, or understand why even they would want to? What use is a platform that posts all the contracts for extracting natural resources if the data is impenetrable to all but the technical experts?"

In the spirit of the civil society-government cooperation, let me agree. The OGP has reason to be proud of its achievements, including its impressive growth and its ability to reform. But unless the OGP makes a stronger and more explicit link between the obligation of governments to make information public, and the right of citizens to utilize it to demand accountability, fight corruption, and advocate for change, then the transformative potential of the OGP will not be fully realized.

[Reporting from Paris]


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