OGP CSO Leaders Criticize Mexico Over FOI Legislation

21 February 2015

In a highly unusual move, the civil society co-chairs on the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee have criticized the Mexican government, the overall OGP lead chairman, for proposing to undercut the Mexican freedom of information law.

The Feb. 21 statement came after Mexican civil society groups blasted the Mexican government, but was a rare public statement by the OGP civil society leaders, who have generally chosen to avoid confrontation with OGP member governments in favor of engagement.

“We encourage the Mexican Government and Congress to seize this opportunity to re-confirm their proven record and commitment towards transparency, access to information and co-creation processes with civil society, as appropriate to their leadership of the OGP,” wrote Suneeta Kaimal and Alejandro González Arreola, who together lead the civil society delegation on the steering committee.

The OGP governance structure features a steering committee with an equal number of civil society organization (CSO) members and government representatives. The Mexican government is the lead co-chair of the OGP Steering Committee and later this year will host the OGP summit.

Kaimal is the Deputy Director of the Natural Resources Governance Institute (USA) and Alejandro González Arreola is the Executive Director of GESOC, Gestión Social y Cooperación, A.C. (Mexico).

The two CSO co-chairs wrote that they “share” the “expressions of deep concern from Mexican civil society and IFAI commissioners regarding a last-minute set of changes to the bill proposed by the Federal Executive Branch that may undermine key progressive achievements reached by the recent constitutional transparency reforms. “

The controversy concerns some 80 last-minute amendments proposed by the government to a General Transparency Law being prepared to implement 2014 constitutional amendments on transparency.

Civil society groups that have active in the OGP process within Mexico on Feb. 3 sent a three-page letter detailing more than 20 specific concerns about the government’s amendments, which arrived after a period of consultations that had resulted in a bill nearing passage in the Senate. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

On provision drawing objections would create an exception to disclosure when the information requested affects economic stability.

The CSO groups are part of OGP-Mexico, a platform for interaction between civil society and the government. The signatories were Article 19, Cidac, Cultura, Ecológica, Fundar, Gesoc, Imco, SociaTic and Transrencia Mexicana. TM issued a statement Feb. 17 summarizing the objections:

First and foremost, they will produce a great regression in what Mexico has gained regarding transparency and access to information; gains that the Civil Society and relevant stakeholders have pro-actively defended for the past twelve years.

Second, they blatantly weaken the Federal Institute for Access to Public Information and Data Protection (IFAI) by constraining its independence and authority.

Third, there are a series of small adjustments that limit the right of access to information and transparency, the obligations towards transparency and accountability of public servants, and broaden the number of criteria to withdraw information from the public and the number of years it must remain undisclosed.

Should this initiative pass with these modifications, the most likely scenario will be one where public servants will be able to act with no accountability, and with an extraordinary ease to wash their hands of any omission on their part.

Furthermore, the access to information guarantor body will have little power to investigate and sanction any irregularity. In a nutshell, the General Transparency Law initiative, as proposed by the Executive Branch, is all but open.

 Objections (in Spanish) also came from the Federal Institute for Access to Public Information and Data Protection (IFAI), which administers the FOI laws.

Mexico assumed the position of lead co-chair of OGP in 2014, with a commitment to “promoting transparency, fighting corruption and citizen empowerment.”

Civil Society Objections Unusual

The OGP Steering Committee, and its civil society members, has avoiding public criticism of member governments except in a few instances.

The first time came early in the OGP’s life when the South African government proposed the so-called Secrecy Law. All but one of the CSO members sent a letter in December of 2011 urging the South African government to listen to the civil society concerns and explaining that passage would cast “a shadow” over South Africa’s participation in OGP. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.) The bill was eventually passed, but has not been implemented.

After that, the Steering Committee as a whole decided that it would only comment on national controversies in several defined “exceptional circumstances,” according to a Feb. 21, 2013, statement. (See FreedomInfo.org report.)

At the time, the committee was faced with a request that the Steering Committee “signal” disappointment that the Philippines, a Steering Committee member, had failed to pass freedom of information legislation.

The behind-the-scenes tensions at the time were high because the original members of the Steering Committee could not agree on who would step down to begin an election process, which has since begun. No volunteers had come forward to rotate off the Steering Committee.

The Philippines had indicated a willingness to step down, but later reversed its position. South Africa balked at rotating off because the Philippines was being encouraged to remain on. Both stayed on. When Mexico’s one-year chairmanship ends this year, the next chairman will be South Africa.

The Steering Committee made no statement when asked in November of 2013 by more than 100 CSOs worldwide to comment on secret government surveillance. (See FreedomInfo.org report.) Nor did it get involved over 2013 protests about Hungary’s regressive changes to its FOI law. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

In November 2014, the OGP Steering Committee issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned about recent personal attacks on Ms. Vanja Calovic, the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) researcher in Montenegro.” The IRM is the OGP process in which researchers such as Calovic are hired to evaluate the progress in fulfilling national action plans.

On several occasions, the OGP has disclosed letters to countries that had missed deadlines. In December 2014, 12 countries were cautioned that they were falling behind on their OGP responsibilities. (See FreedomInfo.org report.)

The OGP Steering Committee earlier in 2014 adopted a policy for handling noncompliance with OGP commitments, detailed on the OGP website. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.) Essentially, two warnings in a row would trigger a discussion about continued OGP membership – the sanction that the organization, founded on inclusion, voluntary goal-setting and mutual support, hopes to avoid. A country will be in breach if it does not publish a national action plan within 4 months of the due date.

Failures to fulfill commitments made in a national action plan are not likely to be subject to official OGP sanction. For example, Ghana is on the verge of not having passed a promised FOI bill. (See FreedomInfo.org report.) The monitoring of action plans is handled through a review process involving country self-assessments and independent reviews.

The OGP has established a system for handling complaints that any of the 65 member countries are impeding free expression and the functioning of civil society organizations. No applications have yet been received, though at least one is in development. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

See more than 200 FreedomInfo.org reports on the OGP here.

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: , ,

Filed under: What's New