Rousseff Does About-Face on Brazil FOI Legislation

17 June 2011

By Greg Michener

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has reversed her support for expedited passage of a Brazilian freedom of information law this week, ceding to senators’ desire to reappraise the law and include weakening amendments.

The proposed changes aim to eliminate time limits on how long information can be classified as secret and held from the public. Such amendments would contravene regional and national legal guarantees, in addition to delaying and enfeebling a prospective freedom of information law. 

About-Face Ramifications

The government’s decision is a surprising about-face. Rousseff initially sought enactment of the freedom of information law on May 3, World Press Freedom Day. This earlier commitment to transparency coincided with President Barack Obama’s visit and his invitation for Brazil to co-chair the Open Government Partnership, due to be announced at the inauguration of the United Nations in September of this year. While casting doubt on Brazil’s role within this promising initiative, Rousseff’s actions also put into question the purpose of an International Seminar on Access to Public Information due to be held in Brasilia in a month’s time, on the 7th and 8th of July.  

Brazil is only one of a few remaining countries in the Americas continuing to hold out against a freedom of information law, the others being Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Venezuela. Over the last ten years eleven countries in the region have adopted laws, including Panama (2002), Peru (2002), Mexico (2002), the Dominican Republic (2004), Ecuador (2004), Honduras (2006), Nicaragua (2007), Guatemala (2008), Uruguay (2008), Chile (2008), and most recently, El Salvador, in March 2011.

Rousseff’s actions, which will delay and jeopardize the integrity of Brazil’s prospective freedom of information law, have led Brazil advocate organizations Artigo XIX, Conectas, and ABRAJI, to issue statements condemning the move. 

Bowing to Pressures in the Senate 

Rousseff’s decision bows to the wishes of Senate President, José Sarney, and Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, Fernando Collor. Both politicians are ex-presidents, Sarney having presided from 1985 to 1990 and Collor from 1990 to 1992, before he was impeached on charges of corruption and influence trafficking.

Both senators are also regarded as transparency-adverse chieftains (coronels) from poor northeastern states, where they exercise enormous political and economic control.

Senator Sarney justified his adherence to the current policy of “eternal secrecy” (sigilo eterno) by explaining: “Lately, all of us have been beating up on our country. Let’s embrace the country and preserve what it has. We won’t open up those wounds from the past, from our history.” 

The reversal represents an apparent effort to maintain the coherence of Rousseff’s majority coalition in the Senate, placating powerful leaders. But President Rousseff’s compromises are also causing internal frictions within her own party.

The leader of the President’s Worker’s Party (PT) in the Senate, Humberto Costa, has come out against the President, asserting, “The PT does not agree with changes to the project, because it is not in favor of eternal secrecy.” Any changes in the Senate would then need to be approved in the Chamber of Deputies before a law could be passed.

Rousseff has made calls to set the bill aside for a few months, which suggests that the law may ultimately have to wait until late 2011 or even 2012 to receive final approval. 

Eternal Secrecy Contravenes Regional and National Law 

If the proposed weakening amendments are successful, they will snub the Organization of American States’ 2010 Inter-American Court’s decision, Gomes Lund v. Brasil (2010), which mandates that Brazil open all information relevant to the investigation of human rights abuses. It also runs contrary to the creation of a Truth Commission, a measure now being debated in the Lower House of parliament. Finally, eternal secrecy stands in contravention of Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, articles 5 and 37, both of which guarantee the right to access public information. 

Greg Michener is a Canadian citizen and a permanent resident of Brazil (by way of marriage). A Rio de Janeiro based political scientist, Michener earned his Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin in 2010, and is now writing a book on freedom of information in Latin America for Cambridge University Press (forthcoming, 2012). He blogs at  

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