Documenting Access to Information in Latin America: Legal Milestones and Success Stories

28 September 2008

Silvina Acosta – Program Manager, Trust for the Americas
Emilene Martínez-Morales – Transparency Programs Coordinator, National Security Archive

Washington DC, – The Right to Know made headlines in Latin America during the past year.  Just a few days ago the Guatemalan Congress approved an Access to Information Law. Chile’s Transparency and Access to Information Law was signed by President Bachelet in August. Journalists and civil society in countries with FOI legislation made use of the laws to uncover dubious government spending and to empower citizens. Right to Know movements got stronger in countries that lack access to information legislation. Here are 12 examples of legal milestones and success stories related to freedom of information the region.

1. September 24, 2008 – Mexico – Mexican Supreme Court Upholds the Right to Know
Source: La Jornada

The Mexican Supreme Court declared that the state of Queretaro’s decision to merge its local Access to Information Commission with the Human Rights Ombudsman was unconstitutional since in contravened the 2007 constitutional amendment. The amendment calls for specialized bodies or organizations that will oversee the right to access public information. This is a major victory for Mexican FOI advocates who feared that Queretaro would become a precedent for opacity.

2. September 24, 2008 – Guatemala – Guatemalan Congress Approves Access to Information Law
Source: El Periódico

The Access to Information Law approved unanimously by the Guatemalan Congress allows any person the right to request information from government entities and also has provisions to protect personal data. The Law provides for sanctions in case government officials destroy records, deny information or divulgate personal data. The law will come into effect in January 2009.

3. August 16, 2008 – Honduras – Dubious Management of Travel Allowances in Honduran Presidency
Source: El Heraldo

Reporter Alex Flores from Tegucigalpa’s El Heraldo obtained a copy of a memorandum signed by José Holliday, member of the presidential staff, who informed employees that it was no longer necessary to present expense reports after business trips. Holliday states in the memo (signed in July 2006) that the measure was taken: “due to security reasons and to protect the confidentiality of government employees.”

4. August 11, 2008 – Chile – Chile Enacts Transparency and Access to Information Law
Source: ProAcceso Chile

Three years after Sentors Larrain and Gazmuri presented a draft on a bill that would strengthen access to government information, Chile’s Transparency Law was finally enacted in August 2008. The Law states that government agencies have 20 business days to comply with information requests and obliges them to publish information such as budgets, procurement and internal organization on their Web sites. The Law also created the Transparency Council, an institution that will oversee government compliance to access to information requests and oversee the appeals process.

5. August 8, 2008 – Inter-American Juridical Committee Approves Principles on Access to Information
Source: Inter-American Juridical Committee – and Bertoni E-Mail

The Inter-American Juridical Committee, an advisory body of the Organization of American States, unanimously approved Resolution No. 147 (LXXIII-O/08) in August 2008 which recognizes access to information as a fundamental human right.  This resolution contains a set of principles on the right of access to information including that this right applies to all public bodies (in the executive, legislative and judicial branches) and that individuals have the right to appeal any refusal or obstruction to provide access to government records.

6. July 12, 2008 – Peru – Accessible Information for Citizens Campaign
Source: El Comercio

The Peruvian daily, El Comercio, launched the journalistic project Accessible Information for Citizens – a series of articles and reports focused on denouncing access to information responses that are deliberately confusing. The idea came after reporters received responses that were incomplete or full of information not relevant to the request. The project will also audit government Web pages that are full of technicalities and abbreviations that impair effective access to public information.

7. February 15, 2008 – Argentina – NGO Gains Access to Income Reports
Source: Poder Ciudadano

On July 12, 2006, Argentine NGO Poder Ciudadano requested judicial branch records related to the personal income reports submitted by the nation’s judges. After 14 months, the request was denied.  The resolution was appealed by Poder Ciudadano and resulted in the declassification of this information in October 2007 and the establishment of clear rules on the release of information related to income reports.

8. November 7, 2007 – Mexico – Comunidades Project: Empowering Civil Society
Source: IFAI

Comunidades was a two-year project of the Mexican Access to Information Institute and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Its objective was to empower underprivileged communities through the exercise of their right to know. The project trained 20 civil society organizations in seven Mexican states. Among the successful cases is that of CADHAC in the state of Nuevo León. This human rights group trained 200 inmates on how to use access to information laws to obtain their personal conduct records and investigate why they had not been eligible for parole.  The project has been extremely successful, and the information obtained has resulted in the release of over 30 people who were denied parole without justification.

9. September 22, 2008 – Venezuela – Mission Impossible: Requesting Public Records
Source: PROACCESO

PRO-ACCESO, the Venezuelan Alliance for the Right to Information collected several media articles related with the obstacles that journalists face in requesting public information by phone, written petitions, or through the Internet. It is important to note that Venezuela does not have an FOI law.  In fact, the reporter Emilia Diaz-Struck from the daily El Mundo describes how requesting public records is an exhausting task that seldom results in any records or information. On October 15, PRO-ACCESO and Venezuelan journalists will submit to Congress a Freedom of Information Bill that seeks to establish procedures enabling citizens to access government information.

10. April 2, 2008 – Panama – Country Club Built in Public Park Land with Public Funds
Source: La Prensa

Panama was one of the first countries in Latin America to approve a FOI law in 2002. As a result, journalists from newspapers like La Prensa and investigative reporters from other news media organizations are quite familiar with FOI procedures. Relying on public records and maps, La Prensa’s investigative unit revealed irregularities in the construction of one of the most expensive (U$189 million) and controversial tourist projects in Panama City. The investigation led to several stories published in April 2008.

11. January-July 2008 – Nicaragua – Journalism and Access to Public Information
Source: Fundacion Violeta Barrio de Chamorro (FVBCH)

The Violeta Barrio Foundation and journalists from three Nicaraguan newspapers made a series of requests for public records to test the level of government compliance regarding the access to information law.  The investigation began in 2008 after the approval of the FOI law in that country. A total of 22 information and document requests were submitted to 16 public agencies in six months.  Only 14% of requests resulted in full disclosure; 18% resulted in partial disclosure; 14% were denied; and almost 32% received no response whatsoever.  The detailed reports and results are available in the links above.

12. July 1, 2008 – Brazil – Study Reveals Lack of Transparency in Municipal Agencies
Source: ABRAJI – Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo

Brazil does not have an FOI law; however several journalists have been active in pushing for greater access to government information.  The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism conducted a watchdog effort monitoring access to information in the executive and legislative powers in the 26 Brazilian regions. The investigation was conducted by journalists from around the country, and a total of 52 mayoral offices and municipal councils were evaluated.  Two sets of written requests were submitted separately to each body. Only four of the government entities that were evaluated (7.6%) provided responsive information of some kind, and the remaining 48 (92.4%) did not disclose any of the requested information.  More detailed results are available in the links above.

For more information on the Right to Know movement in Brazil visit O Fórum de Direito de Acesso a Informações Públicas, an Internet forum dedicated to fostering debate about the right to access public information in Brazil. It was launched in 2004 and it is supported by five Brazilian media associations, as well as Article 19 and Transparency Brazil.

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