The challenges to the Uruguayan FOI Act

18 December 2013

By Mariana Mas

Mas works for the Uruguayan group DATA.  

This year the Uruguayan FOI act was reformed, but the path to the reform wasn’t an easy road, it meant different struggles between the Senators, the organized civil society (OSC) and the official body in charge on the control of FOI.

In August of this year the Executive proposed a reform in the FOI act within the Accountability and Budget Execution Act, a reform that contained the following items: the creation of a new exception to access to information (information related to a deliberative process, until the decision is taken), the possibility to declare information as reserved in the moment it is requested; attribution to the official body in charge on the control of FOI the power to declassify information in the cases the classification does not obey all the standards that appear in the law.

The National Institution for Human Rights (the National Ombudsman) declared itself against the reform proposed by the Executive.

Despite this declaration, the reform was included in the Accountability and Budget Execution Act by the Commission in charge of the bill in the Senate, but they didn’t take it as it came from the Executive, they included some changes that meant a much more aggressive position against FOI. This changes confirmed the two first reforms, eliminated the third one and created a new one: a disposition that allows public companies to declare as reserved any information they understand that affects them.

The fact of reforming a law that rules a human right in the Accountability and Budget Execution Act is unconstitutional, and also the content of the reform was a clear threat to the right to access information and a guarantee for discretionary acts and lack of transparency.

This was very clear to various organizations of the civil society that got organized and created a site for awareness rising. These organizations also started an advocacy campaign which resulted in meetings with the Commission in the Senate and with both government party Senators and those from the opposition. As the OSC is represented in an Advisory Council, part of the Unity of Access to Public Information, the official body in charge on the control of FOI, it became a space for the debate with other actors from the government. The OSC also denounced the situation to the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression (United Nations). He made an observation on the reform and the dangers to FOI that it could cause.

Finally the reform was eliminated from the Accountability and Budget Execution Act. Even though some government party legislators were very determined on reforming the FOI act, so they put the case for study in the Commission of Education and Culture of the Senate. Facing this imminent fact, the Advisory Council of the Unity of Access to Public Information decided to present an alternative text that at least created the guarantees for more transparent procedures. This text passed to the Commission and from there to the Senate plenary.

Finally this text presented by the Advisory Council was voted unanimously by the Senate (within a very poor debate) and on Wednesday it will be approved by the House of Representatives. The struggle was hard, and even if some legislators believe that the “Uruguayan civil society is not mature enough to have a FOI act” or that some people “abuse” of that right, we are sure they are not right, we have largely demonstrated the importance of having a law like this. The way to have and even better law is the call for a national debate with representatives from the government, the opposition, civil society, academy and international/regional experts to plan on an exemplary FOI reform.

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