On September 28, 2016, UNESCO celebrated the first annual International Day for the Universal Access to Information, or #AccesstoInfoDay. Formerly known as “International Right to Know Day,” the day emphasizes the importance of freedom of opinion and expression, which – according to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights – includes the right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media.”
“Because of a long history of governments trying to control what is believed and presented in various forms of media, this area of human rights law has become essential across the globe,” writes H. Victor Conde, a human rights lawyer and friend of PFAV, in An Encyclopedia of Human Rights in The United States. “The international human rights movement has given pride of place to protection of these rights as fundamentally necessary for a free and informed society.”
The UN adopted the Declaration in 1948, well before personal computers made access to information easier and faster than could have been imagined before. In 1966, the international community transformed the words of the Universal Declaration into a binding legal norm by adopting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty which most nations, including the U.S. and Nepal, have ratified. Article 18 of that treaty reads:
1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
In 2016 the UN Human Rights Council declared, in a resolution (A/HRC/32/L.20) supported by the U.S., that access to the internet is a human right. It stated that the Council:
Affirms that quality education plays a decisive role in development, and therefore calls upon all States to promote digital literacy and to facilitate access to information on the Internet, which can be an important tool in facilitating the promotion of the right to education:
Stressing the importance of empowering all women and girls by enhancing their access to information and communications technology, promoting digital literacy and the participation of women and girls in education and training on information and communications technology, and encouraging women and girls to embark on careers in the sciences and information and communications technology, and emphasizing that access to information on the Internet facilitates vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally, thereby being an important tool to facilitate the promotion of the right to education, while underlining the need to address digital literacy and the digital divide, as it affects the enjoyment of the right to education, the nations of the world have recognized a human right of everyone to have access to information including from the internet.
PFAV is doing its small but concrete part to make this a reality. Protecting the right to receive and impart information means more than outlawing censorship or building libraries across the globe. It requires universal access to modern technology, software, and the Internet, which are often scarce in the rural communities of developing nations.
This was the case in Rupakot, a village in central Nepal that PFAV has now visited several times. While there in 2014, Kathy and Rene Perez-Silva decided to build a learning center and later stocked it with computers and desks. But following Nepal’s devastating earthquake in April 2015 – which killed nearly 9,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless – all the computers were damaged beyond repair. On PFAV’s next visit to Nepal, one of the volunteers – Fran Bennett – became close with the children of Rupakot. They told her that the learning center was still there, even after the quake, but desperately needed working computers.
Since then, the Bennett family donated new computers, helped hire a teacher, and continues to fund the learning center, which offers computer and English classes to Rupakot residents each week. The children learn to use programs like Word, Excel, and email. Free Wi-Fi is available to all villagers, which allows the many families with loved ones abroad to communicate with them.
Having access to computers allows the people of Nepal to exercise their inherent human rights of freedom of expression, access to information, and receiving an education. Through programs like the Rupakot learning center and the TEJ Initiative, PFAV is committed to expanding access to information in Nepal, especially for women and children. Knowing the positive impact just a few computers can have in a community, we plan to continue this work in the future. Stay tuned for more opportunities to help us do it, or consider celebrating #AccesstoInfoDay by contributing to the computer center or the TEJ Initiative.