By Natalia Torres
Senior Researcher, CELE
The Legislative Assembly of El Salvador March 3 gave definitive approval to the Law on Access to Public Information.
The law, which was first passed in December of last year, received a series of observations from the president of the country. Congress had to either reject or incorporate them to the Act, but had no established time for this revision, something that could have condemned the “almost” law to a legislative limbo.
Civil society activism seems to have played an important role throughout this process: the coalition to promote the legislation (Grupo Promotor) got involved from the very beginning of the elaboration of the bill and pushed for final approval. Even while it is quite difficult to measure the impact of the group´s actions, the fact is that since last week El Salvador had entered the list of FOI countries that guarantee the right to know within their territories.
Provisions of the New Law
The law recognizes the right to know to every person and does not ask for motivation or legitimate interest. As it also regulates personal data, the law distinguishes public information, “información oficiosa” - information that agencies need to disclose without any particular request – from confidential information and reserved information. It creates the Institute of Access to Public Information with five commissioners named by the President of the Republic and Units of Information within agencies.
Also, the act establishes a series of actions that agencies need to perform in order to comply with the regulation. Among these, we find the need to train public officers, raise public awareness about the legislation and include access to information within scholarly curricula.
But probably the key actions that the administration needs to perform in order to comply with the legislation is the creation of the institutions in charge of the implementation – basically, the Institute and the departmental units of information, the designation of the information officers and the production and disclosure of the información oficiosa. It was in this context that the Under Secretary on Transparency, Marco Rodriguez, affirmed, “At the moment this country is technically, financially and culturally unprepared to reveal information, but that certainly has to change.”
As a result, President Mauricio Funes included the extension of the vacatio legis among the seven observations presented last January to the Legislative Assembly. In his message, the president explained “… that the time frames provided in the statute are too short considering that in order to comply with the ends being sought the institution that applies the law as well as the archive that holds the information have to be ready to operate.”
The Committee on Legislation and Constitutional Affairs adopted the presidential observation regarding the vacatio legis and sent the law back to the plenary that finally approved the freedom of information legislation with 80 votes from different parties.
El Salvador is now listed as a FOI country. Its law is a fundamental step for access to information but also only the beginning of a long journey against the culture of governmental secrecy. The president now has 365 days to prepare for the act´s implementation.
Leaving particular circumstances aside, any country regulating access to information should consider a reasonable period of time to prepare their officers for the implementation of the act. This has been fully contemplated by the OAS´ Group of Experts in the elaboration of the Model Law: “It is widely acknowledged that access to information laws don’t stand on themselves in a good-governance, transparent and democratic realm. In fact, an access to information law is only one of many steps.”
The implementation guide aims to contribute to the generation of “a comprehensive legal and policy framework considering the elements that an access to information regime will require in order to function efficiently.”
This law is the first one to be approved since the OAS adopted a model law (English and Spanish). Hopefully, the efforts of the Group of Experts that elaborate the OAS Implementation Guide could contribute to the tough task of giving people full and fair access to public information.
Some Media Reports (in Spanish).
Filed under: What's New