Brazilian FOI Bill Clears Two Senate Panels, One to Go

20 April 2011

The proposed Brazilian freedom of information law cleared two Senate committees April 19, leaving one committee to go in an apparent sprint to meet the Brazilian president’s declared goal of passage by May 3.

The bill was passed the committees of Human Rights and Science and Technology and will now be considered by the Committee on Foreign Relations.

The prospects for the bill are now seen as improving. President Dilma Rousseff recently stated her support for the bill, boosting its chances. (See report of April 18.)  

Why the bill is moving now is addressed in an interview published by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Brazilian journalist Fernando Rodrigues, president of the Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism (Abraji). He said:

Democracy, like everything in life, has cycles. In Brazil the cycle just ended of eight years of Lula’s government. Now, I imagine, the new political players understand the necessity of having institutional advances that weren’t possible in previous years. It seems to me this is the case in terms of the presidential administration in relation to adopting a law on access.

While being optimistic about the chance of passage, Rodrigues observed, “If all this happens, Brazil will have a law that might not be perfect, but it has major innovations – including in comparison to the U.S. and other countries.”

Not so positive, he said, is that the maximum period of confidentiality (for classified secret documents) can reach, in some cases, up to 50 years (one term too long). Also, the bill does not create an independent regulatory agency to lead the process of enforcement.

On the positive side he listed:

1) Although some documents may remain classified up to 50 years, there are many difficulties to make this happen. It is necessary that government ministers personally make this classification and outline in detail their reasons for doing so.

2) Although no regulatory agency is created, the law is quite detailed on the procedures available for those who wish to have access to information. There are many punishments for public officials who break the law.

3) Unlike many countries, the Brazilian law applies to all municipal governments (5,600 cities), states (27 governors) and the President of the Republic. It also applies to the Judicial and Legislative branches, in all their levels. Finally, all firms or NGOS that work for the government or receive public funds also are subject to the law. As far as I know, no other country has produced a law with a spectrum as broad as the Brazilian one.

4) Another piece of great relevance requires all public agencies to disclose annually a complete list of all documents that were classified, some sort of identification and the period within which these papers will become public. These listings are a powerful tool in the hands of society to hold governments accountable.

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