New York — In the debate over the inclusion of media freedom and access to information in the post-2015 development agenda, it is perhaps fitting that it all comes down to language.
A growing international coalition has come together in the belief that sustainable development cannot be achieved "without public access to reliable information about health, education, the environment, and other critical development areas - and that requires independent monitoring of that data by media and civil society," as William Orme, UN representative for the Brussels-based Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD), characterized the stakes to IRIN. But will this notion be enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals, currently under discussion in a series Open Working Group meetings? And if so, what will the precise wording be?
The matter is controversial, noted James Deane, director of policy and learning at BBC Media Action, speaking during a panel discussion on 5 June.
"Any discussion of having some kind of goal around governance is already contentious," he said. "Having a discussion that mentions the word media, especially if it's associated with anything called freedom, immediately creates a dynamic in the development discussion where a lot of developing countries - and I think particularly the Chinas of this world - become increasingly uncomfortable, feeling that this is a Western agenda, an excuse to compose a conditionality on developing countries, their values, that it will be interpreted in ways that are damaging to their interests and it just immediately becomes - it takes the discussion out of a development context into a much more politically charged set of arguments and discussions."
"This is not a North vs. South debate, as some have wrongly portrayed it," said Orme of GFMD. "Many African, Asian and Latin American countries have strongly backed the inclusion of 'A2I' [Access to Information] targets in the continuing UN discussions about the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In contrast to the Millennium Development Goals, the new SDGs are intended to apply to all countries, to the North as well as the South. And there is no country where the public availability of independently evaluated development information cannot be improved."
Last year, the Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons, co-chaired by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, suggested five ways "to ensure good governance and effective institutions" in the post-2015 framework.
One was to "ensure people enjoy freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest, and access to independent media and information". Another sought to "guarantee the public's right to information and access to government data".
At the same time, the Open Working Group (OWG), which is made up representatives of 69 member countries, began meeting to develop its own recommendations for the SDGs.
In April 2014, the OWG released the Focus Area Document, which asked nations to "improve access to information on public finance management, public procurement and on the implementation of national development plans".
It also advocated removing "unnecessary restrictions of freedom of media, association and speech". Many media-freedom advocates regarded the document as a regression from the high-level panel's work.
But aided by the advocacy of more than 200 organizations led by GFMD and Article 19 (an NGO dedicated to press freedoms), OWG released a Zero Draft on 2 June that contained much stronger wording than the Focus Area Document.
It proposed that SDG No. 16 to "achieve peaceful and inclusive societies, rule of law, effective and capable institutions" include subgoals to "improve public access to information and government data" and "promote freedom of media, association, and speech."
Jan Lublinski, a project manager for the German international media development agency DW Akademie, said he was "delighted" that the first version of the Zero Draft included passages on media freedom and access to information.
"More and more people are becoming aware that these issues need to be included in the future framework of SDGs," he told IRIN. "So I am quite optimistic that we will see these important elements in the final document."
But then, on 2 July, OWG released a new version of the Zero Draft. It now proposed that SDG No. 16 to "achieve peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice for all, and effective and capable institutions" include a subgoal to "promote free and easy access to information, freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly". Any mention of media freedom and public access to information had been stricken.
Orme lamented that the Zero Draft had been "watered down" and pledged that GFMD would work to strengthen it.
The Open Working Group will be meeting informally during the week of 7 July and will begin its final session, the thirteenth, on 14 July. A final version of the Zero Draft will be formalized and submitted to the General Assembly for consideration in August.
"The process is far from over, but UNESCO continues to champion the aspect of media freedom as an integral part of governance," said Fackson Banda, who teaches at Rhodes University in South Africa and works on freedom of expression and media development issues with UNESCO.
"We understand that, in its attempts at economy and simplicity, the OWG may lose sight of some cardinal elements which were previously part of the proposed goals and targets," he said.
"We continue to believe that the issue of media freedom is a concern of many Member States and that it will, as in the report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons, be pushed back on to the governance agenda of the post-2015 development consultations."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]