Brazilian Senator Takes Stand Undercutting FOI Bill

25 August 2011

Former Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello, now a powerful senator, has proposed revisions to the proposed freedom of information bill that proponents quickly condemned.

His proposals are raising concerns about the bill’s future notwithstanding the support for it by new president Dilma Rousseff. (See previous reports.)

International freedom of expression group Article 19 criticized his proposals Aug. 25.  “Mello, who is now chair of the Commission for External Relations and National Defense, which is overseeing the final stage of the bill, is jeopardising a combined effort, involving public consultation and long debates within congress, to agree an access to information bill according to international standards and best practice.” said Paula Martins, Coordinator, Article 19 Brazil and South America.

“If accepted, Mello’s proposals would lead to very problematic changes in the bill, where secrecy is the rule and freedom of information is the exception,” Martins said. Article 19 summarized:

The proposal would remove the onus on the government to provide pro-active disclosure, the ability of citizens to request information without providing justification, and the time limit on how long information can be classified as confidential. It would establish additional levels of secrecy, expand the number of officials who can classify information as secret, and allow unlimited renewals of classification periods.

For another article about the situation see a piece by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

The proposed amendments were condemned as “radical” by the FOI expert Greg Michener in his blog Observing Brazil. He wrote in part;

Given Senator Collor’s intent, the freedom of information bill will almost certainly forfeit normal legislative procedure. President Dilma Rousseff will have to work with Senate leader José Sarney to either a) issue an “urgency petition” in order to force the bill out of committee, for an open floor vote, or b) pursue a floor vote that will ultimately approve the bill as it stood before Collor’s amendments. If the Senator’s amendments are approved, the bill will likely go back to the Chamber of Deputies to expire. What stands in the way of a successful urgency petition is Senate leader José Sarney, who has already indicated his opposition to the bill. Without the Senate leader’s cooperation, moving forward with the urgency petition may be impossible.

In light of recent revelations of corruption by government watchdogs, which have predominantly fallen on parties within Rousseff’s coalition (including Sarney’s PMDB), a strategy to delay or even amend the freedom of information law may be just the revenge that congressional allies have been looking for. A defeat in the Senate would be an embarrassing step backwards for the Brazilian government, especially after its recent pledge to co-chair the Open Government Partnership, an international initiative whose very intent is openness and transparency.

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