As we all know, knowledge is power. The ability to find correct information on the things that are important to you, and in fact can save your life, is even more important now in the COVID-19 pandemic than it was a few months ago. It’s not just important or a ‘nice to have’ – each of us has the human right to access information, as set out in international law. This is not just something that governments should do if they want to – this is a right they must protect, even in times of crisis, and take steps to ensure that each of us can access appropriate and accurate information on COVID-19.
But what does this right mean to street-connected children and homeless youth? What should you as CSC network members, working daily with street-connected children and homeless youth in this pandemic, be doing or advocating with governments to protect this right?
This note sets out how the children and young people your organisation supports are affected and what you can ask your government to do to ensure that they have the information they need to stay safe.
We’ve also attached at the end of this note a section with additional information explaining what the right to information is and what government’s obligations are in this regard.
During a pandemic, the right to access information must be urgently respected and promoted. Everyone needs to have accurate and appropriate information during a pandemic, including street-connected children and homeless youth, to know what the virus is, how it transmits or spreads, what the symptoms are and how to protect themselves and others.
How are street-connected children and homeless youth affected?
Street-connected children and homeless youth are being hit particularly hard by this pandemic. Many have no access to clean water, health care or shelter. Data indicates that children have a lower fatality rate than adults to the virus itself. However, the main health threat for anyone who catches COVID-19 is poor immune systems and underlying health conditions, and we all know that street-connected children and homeless youth are vulnerable. For instance, one of CSC’s Network Members, Safe Society operating in India, expressed their fear that as a respiratory disease, COVID-19 will heavily impact street-connected children and their families, whose health is already compromised by lung and other chronic diseases.
For many of these children and youth, accessing information and following formal advice to keep safe is simply not an option. When people are told to self-isolate, street-connected children and homeless youth may not have a safe home to go to. When told to wash their hands frequently, they have no soap or clean water to do it with. And when instructions are given out over the internet or in newspapers, many cannot read them and remain uninformed of even basic information.
As an organisation working with street-connected children or homeless youth, you know better than anyone that they will often have a lack of access to information, making it more difficult for them to be informed on how the virus may affect them, how they can protect themselves, what they should do, or where they can go, if they develop symptoms. If governments rely solely on newspapers, TV and the Internet to share public health information, they are not taking the steps necessary to ensure that street-connected children and homeless youth are informed and able to protect themselves.
Even if information is made available to them through appropriate channels, the information provided by governments is often not child-friendly, and may not be in a language or format they understand. Therefore, some of our Network Members have taken it upon themselves to collect and develop child-friendly resources that they can pass on to mainstream media. For example, CSC Network Member the Centre for Initiative Against Human Trafficking (CIAHT) in Ghana has bought airtime to reach out to the broader community on the radio with clear recommendations on how to keep safe during the pandemic.
When governments legitimately limit movement or impose lockdowns to try and stem the transmission of COVID-19, it will impact how street-connected children and homeless youth are able to access information about the virus. Because of self-isolation orders, and any fines or criminal sanctions for those who can’t comply, street children may have an interest in staying hidden now more than ever. Many outreach services offered by organisations who serve children have also had to stop due to self-isolation orders. This means no one is able to reach children anymore with information. For example, CSC Network Member Yayasan Kampus Diakoneia Modern (KDM) Foundation in Indonesia is one among dozens of organisations globally who can’t leave their homes to speak to children to inform them of the virus. They had to interrupt all their outreach activities with street-connected children, making it difficult to get information to the children they work with.
What to demand or request from your government?
Here are some examples of initiatives governments have taken to fulfil their obligations to make accurate information widely accessible:
- A special press conference for children has been held by Norway’s Prime Minister. Children had the opportunity to ask Erna Solberg questions including why they couldn’t celebrate their birthday, if the Prime Minister is afraid of the virus, when a vaccine will be developed, etc. Adult journalists were banned from the event.
- In New Zealand, the Prime Minister, recognising that young people need extra help to understand the coronavirus pandemic, also held a special press conference for children.
- The French Ministry of Education published child-friendly information online, explaining in accessible language and format, among others, what the virus is, how children can protect themselves and why schools are closed.
There are also examples of independent authorities legally established to protect children’s rights who have taken proactive steps in ensuring information about COVID-19 reaches children. For instance, in the United Kingdom, the Children’s Commissioner published a children’s guide to coronavirus.
However, these initiatives to bring information closer to children remain limited, and often still won’t reach street-connected children and homeless youth. Here are some examples of what you can ask your government to do to ensure that these children and young people have access to information.
- Ask your government to take immediate steps to ensure their populations have access to accurate and evidence-based information on the current pandemic in a language and format they understand.
This information should focus, among others, on how the virus spreads, what the symptoms are, how individuals can protect themselves, and what they should do and where they should go if they fall ill. This information must be factual and non- discriminatory.
- Ask your government to provide this information specifically and proactively to street-connected children. This means they should ensure the information is physically accessible to street-connected children, and that this information is in a language they understand, age appropriate and takes into account their educational and literacy levels. This information must also be accurate, factual and non-discriminatory.
- Recommend to your government that they make clear, easy to understand information accessible and available by being displayed or broadcast in the streets in relevant languages, and through child-friendly flyers with accurate and understandable information on symptoms and how children can protect themselves and seek help.
- Remind your government they have a responsibility to address misinformation. Governments must ensure they themselves are a reliable source of accurate information, and that they reach everyone in society so that there is no vacuum of information that is filled by rumour or hate speech.
- If your government puts in place censorship or bans media outlets or the internet as a way to address the spread of rumours, remind them that these restrictions are only allowed if they are absolutely necessary, proportionate and time-bound. They are not permitted to limit dissent or criticisms of the government. Restricting access to accurate health-related information in a pandemic is never allowed and may result in a violation of the right to access information, the right to health and the right to life.
Why should my government listen to these recommendations and implement them?
Access to information is a human right that all individuals, including street-connected children and homeless youth, have. It is recognised in international law as part of the freedom of expression and the right to health. The Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically recognises the right of the child to freedom of expression, which includes freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds (Article 13) and the right to access to information (Article 17).
The right to access to information means that everyone, including children, must have access to information of public interest from a variety of sources. There are different elements to the right to access to information, such as availability, accessibility, appropriateness and accuracy. Equal access to information therefore does not only mean that accurate information is available, for example because it is shared in the media. Imagine that a government launches a campaign to fight COVID-19 on billboards placed everywhere, but in a language that only half the population understands. Would that information be available? Yes, because it exists in society. Would it be accessible? No, because many people would not understand it.
Accessible information for children is information that uses different forms of communication (written, visual and verbal) so that every child would be able to understand it no matter his or her age, level of education, ability to read, health conditions and so on. Access to information, especially when health-related also implies that information must be accurate to ensure that the child is in the best condition to make well-informed choices.
Most human rights impose both positive and negative obligations on governments. Positive obligations outline what a government must do to make that right a reality. Negative obligations outline what a government must never do in order to not violate a right. In the case of the right to access information, governments have a positive obligation to make accurate information about COVID-19 accessible and understandable to street-connected children and homeless youth, and to you, the organisations working with them. They also have a negative obligation to not withhold or intentionally misrepresent health-related information.
We explained in our previous note that certain rights can be limited in a state of emergency. The right to freedom of expression and as part of that the right to access to information are among the rights that can be limited. However, it is important to keep in mind that this is only allowed if it is necessary, proportionate, non-discriminatory and provided for in a law. Considering the current health crisis, a government may find it necessary and proportionate to block false information from being spread. Governments are, however, never allowed in a health crisis to limit access to accurate information about the health crisis. This is not necessary or proportionate. In fact, it is the opposite, as accurate information is key in addressing the health crisis.
Restrictions are generally only permissible it they are for specific content. Generic bans on the operation of sites, media houses or other information sharing systems are not allowed under human rights law. It is also a violation of the right to freedom of expression to restrict information sharing solely on the basis that it may be critical of a government.
Restricting street-connected children’s right to access information can undermine their other rights, such as their right to health. In other words, if street-connected children cannot find out, in ways and means that they can understand, what COVID-19 is, how it is spread, what the symptoms are and how they can protect themselves, they could die. In this instance, if a government restricts the right to access to information, it can be life threatening. The right to access information is therefore a condition for other rights, such as the right to health and the right to life.
In rights language, we would say that equal and full access to health-related information must be granted by States to realise the individual right to health.
But what does that mean for my government? What legal obligations does my government have to uphold the right to access to information during a pandemic?
States are obligated under the right to access to information and the right to health, to provide health education and correct, factual information about COVID-19. It does not matter if they have ordered populations to stay home – they must still provide this education to all, including street-connected children and homeless youth. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requires governments to establish education programmes for the prevention, treatment and control of epidemic diseases. It includes among the core obligations under the right to health, the provision of education and access to information concerning the main health problems in a community, including methods of preventing and controlling those health problems.[i]
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child further explains that the obligations under the right to health include proving health-related information that is “physically accessible, understandable and appropriate to children’s age and educational level”.[ii] The Committee explicitly states that this information should be made accessible “for children who are not in school” and should be “disseminated in a wide range of public settings.” ii
The Committee on the Rights of the Child also puts an obligation on governments to provide information on children’s health to parents, extended family and other caregivers through methods such as health clinics, parenting classes, public information leaflets, professional bodies, community organisations and the media. ii
Similarly, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights COVID-19 guidance states that: “Relevant information on the COVID-19 pandemic and response should reach all people, without exception. This requires making information available in readily understandable formats and languages, and adapting information for people with specific needs, including the visually- and hearing-impaired, and reaching those with limited or no ability to read.”
International experts have further said: “Governments everywhere are obligated under human rights law to provide reliable information in accessible formats to all, with particular focus on ensuring access to information by those with limited internet access or where disability makes access challenging”.[iii]
When governments fail to uphold the freedom of expression and sharing of information, for instance by censoring journalists or health care workers, they risk hindering an effective response to the outbreak. Emerging research from China suggests that the withholding of information may have inhibited an early response to the initial COVID-19 outbreak. This allowed the spread of the virus to go undetected for longer, increasing the number of people getting infected.
A judgment by the European Court of Human Rights (in Oneryildiz v Turkey)[iv] shows that when a government is aware of a real risk to public health but fails to provide accurate and timely information to affected communities, which results in death, the government violates the right to life. The violation in this case arose out of a failure to supply information rather than intentionally withholding information. This shows that governments not only violate rights when they withhold information, but also when they fail to actively provide information.
Evidence from the 2009 A(H1N1) (‘swine flu’) pandemic suggests that providing accurate information increases protective behaviours while decreasing fear and panic. On the other hand, false information could lead to health concerns, panic and disorder. It is therefore in the interest of every government to ensure reliable and accurate information on the virus reaches everyone.
Other papers will be prepared to support CSC’s Network Members and other interested organisations and individuals. Please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss topics relevant to your work on which you would like to see a similar paper. Please do not hesitate to use the above email address if you need individualised support to analyse laws or measures adopted by the Government in your country in relation to responses to COVID-19 which can or already have an impact on street-connected children’s rights.
[i] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 14: The Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health (Art. 12), 11th August 2000.
[ii] UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, General comment No. 15 (2013) on the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health (art. 24).
[iii] David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Harlem Désir, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and Edison Lanza, IACHR Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, COVID-19: Governments must promote and protect access to and free flow of information during pandemic, 19 March 2020, availabe in English and Spanish at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25729&LangID=E
[iv] M. Mc Donagh, The Right to Information in International Human Rights Law, Human Rights Law Review 13:1, Oxford University Press, 2013, p.43, available at: https://www.corteidh.or.cr/tablas/r30698.pdf