15 October 2003

Access to Information Essential to the Establishment of Knowledge Societies

PARIS, 14 October  -- Meeting in Paris in preparation of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS, Geneva, December 10-12 and Tunis 2005), ministers from all over the world have agreed on a set of principles -- including universal access to information and press freedom -- that must guide the utilization of information and communication technology (ICT) to maximize its effectiveness for individual, community and national development.

In a Communiqué* issued at the end of a two-day Ministerial Round Table Meeting organized by UNESCO ("Towards Knowledge Societies", October 9 and 10**), the ministers taking part called on governments to "reassess their development priorities in order to make the necessary investments in building knowledge societies" which, they emphasized, "entail many issues other than technology and connectivity."

"Knowledge societies are about capabilities to identify, produce, process, transform, disseminate and use information to build and apply knowledge for human development", states the Communiqué. This implies respect for a set of principles and priorities: "Freedom of expression; Universal access to information and knowledge; Respect for human dignity and cultural and linguistic diversity; Quality education for all; Investment in science and technology; Understanding and inclusion of indigenous knowledge systems."

The meeting was held to promote UNESCO's concept of "knowledge societies" and prepare international consensus ahead of WSIS, which is being convened under the patronage of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, with the International Telecommunication Union taking the lead role in its preparation, in cooperation with interested United Nations bodies, including UNESCO, and other international organizations as well as the host countries.

"Our Governments," the ministers declared, "are committed to the improvement of the quality of life of our citizens and economic strength of our societies and to the achievement of an equitable and peaceful global community. The building of knowledge societies is an essential means to achieving these objectives and opens the way to humanization of the process of globalization."

The ministers particularly stressed freedom of expression and press freedom: "The free flow of information is the fundamental premise of knowledge societies. In a knowledge society, each individual will have more freedom and greater possibilities for self-realization, while respecting beliefs and ethics. Knowledge societies encourage openness and dialogue and appreciate wisdom, communication and cooperation. They must be based on the principle of freedom of expression as guaranteed in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 'Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers'".

 In the following Article, the Communiqué states: "Freedom of the press must be upheld and promoted to ensure that all media, traditional as well as new, can fulfil their role in the building of knowledge societies. Media professionals in particular, as key agents in materializing and ensuring freedom of expression, should be afforded a conducive environment to exercise their profession."

Highlighting the role of "knowledge societies" in "achieving sustainability and future prosperity", the ministers called for action to help bridge the digital divide which deprives the populations of developing countries, and the marginalized in developed countries, of access to ICT and pointed to the need for "mechanisms for the funding of this effort, including the setting up of a digital solidarity fund to augment national resources".

The ministers emphasized the importance of "affordable access to a wide range of content" including "data, publications, artistic works, radio and TV programs, and computer programs including open source software, support for access gateways such as libraries, and formulation of national policies to promote publicly accessible information, particularly in the public domain."

The ministers also stressed the need to respect cultural diversity as "the common heritage of humankind. […] Understanding and respect for other cultures is a prerequisite for building inclusive and participatory knowledge societies. […] Knowledge societies must enable citizens to access and create information and knowledge in their own languages and within their own cultural frameworks. We are committed to facilitating the participation of all cultural and linguistic groups in the building of knowledge societies." The ministers further called for cultural policies and public-private partnerships which "should promote the production of local creative content and its wide accessibility in electronic form. In particular, ICT should be used by creators and cultural institutions and industries to preserve and promote minor languages and cultures."

While emphasizing the need for universal access to information and content, the ministers called for "determined action to fight against forgery and piracy of cultural goods as an essential element of efforts to encourage healthy and diverse cultural creation."

The ministers further highlighted the importance of education, stating that "Access to education is a fundamental right, as well as a tool for combating illiteracy, marginalization, poverty and exclusion. ICT provides vast opportunities to effectively and affordably provide quality education for all. […] We need to rethink and redesign our educational systems and processes to meet the challenge of the knowledge societies - to find new ways of looking at information and knowledge according to which we have a right to acquire and a duty to share."

The ministers recognized the "well established relationship between a country's scientific capability and its prosperity. […] Therefore, the public sector, as well as the private sector, in all countries should invest in building science and technology capacities, including research and development (R&D), science education, and electronic networks for science and research. Affordable access to scientific and technological content, such as publications and databases, is a critical development priority. There is also a need to identify and preserve traditional knowledge, to apply ICT to make it available to all, and to establish appropriate links with modern science."

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*  The Communiqué and list of participants can be found at: http://www.unesco.org/wsis/events/roundtable/

** The Round Table Meeting was held as part of the 32nd session of UNESCO's General Conference.


Roni Amelan
Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section
+(33) (0)1 45 68 16 50; r.amelan@unesco.org