11th Austin Forum: culture of secrecy, lack of training are the biggest obstacles to transparency in the Americas

By Alejandro Martínez

The biggest obstacles to transparency in Latin America and the Caribbean are the region’s enduring culture of secrecy, the infrequent use of right-to-information laws and the lack of training on how to use them effectively, according to the journalists and researchers from the continent who gathered on Nov. 8 and 9 at the University of Texas at Austin for the 11th Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas, organized by the Knight Center.

The Austin Forum is an annual conference that has been hosted by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas since 2003. This year, the topic of the Forum was "Transparency and Accountability: Journalists and Access to Public Information in Latin America and the Caribbean." More than 50 journalists, scholars and leaders of non-governmental organizations participated in the event.

"Latin America had in the last three decades an unprecedented wave of democracy, but elections are not enough. The region still face many obstacles to consolidate fundamental democratic institutions and to create a culture of transparency," said professor Rosental Calmon Alves, founder and director of the Knight Center, at the opening session of the Austin Forum. "Throughout the hemisphere, journalists and media companies demanded laws to guarantee access to public information as another step towards the consolidation of democracy. Now, they need to help civil society to create a culture of transparency."

Despite the growing spread of transparency laws across Latin America and the Caribbean, Austin Forum participants coincided it has been difficult to transcend the culture of secrecy that has dominated the continent since colonial times. Doing so requires not only strong transparency laws, but also solid institutions to implement and comply with them, they said.

Among their conclusions, participants underscored the importance of developing collaborations between journalists and nonprofit organizations to continue pushing for improvements in transparency. Moving in that direction requires their combined efforts to educate not only themselves, but also the public in general about the inner workings of access laws and the citizens’ rights to open information.

On the first day of the event, keynote speaker Tom Blanton listed five challenges to continue improving and taking full advantage of access to public information in the continent: finding sustainable sources of income that help fund journalistic projects in the long run, ensuring the safety of whistleblowers, going after multinational corporations and holding them accountable, helping expand the open data movement, and making sure that access-to-information laws work as they should.

Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, recommended, as a general habit, that journalists should file as many public information requests as possible. He suggested the idea of establishing “FOIA Fridays" in the newsrooms; and dedicating every week a day to submitting requests – to help endure the usually long waits for replies to come back.

In the following sessions, panelists from all over the Americas described the level of institutional and governmental transparency in each of their countries and highlighted the most beneficial and deficient aspects of their public information laws.

Mexican journalist and Ibero American University professor Margarita Torres said that even though her country’s transparency law has been praised as an international model for other governments drafting their own legislation on the topic – Blanton described the law as superior to the one in the United States – the law is not implemented homogeneously across the country’s 32 states. Torres added that many Mexican journalists still mostly depend on statements to write their stories and need to improve their knowledge of the country’s transparency mechanisms.

In Guatemala and Nicaragua, panelists said that while the passage of access laws in their countries were a positive step forward, they lamented the legislations do not establish any sanctions for government officials that do not respond to requests. Leonor Zuñiga with Nicaragua’s Center for Investigations on Communication said that even obtaining information at the basic level has become complicated under President Daniel Ortega, who did not offer a single press conference between 2007 and 2012.

Raúl Peñaranda, the former director of Bolivian newspaper Página Siete, spoke of journalists’ opposition to a transparency bill in the country, which could limit – not expand – access to information. Peruvian University of Applied Sciences professor Úrsula Freundt-Thurne presented the results of a survey that found that very few journalists in Peru use transparency laws regularly in their investigations.

Chilean journalists Claudia Urquieta praised the law in her country but agreed that more journalists must learn how to use it. In Uruguay, the law has helped journalist gain more access to public information but Republic University professor Rosario Radakovich said institutions still remain secretive and are able to continue being unresponsive thanks to the overall support that the current administration of President José Mújica still enjoys.

Wesley Gibbings, president of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers, said the English-speaking countries in the region have been moving slowly but surely away from their long-standing culture of secrecy and passing public information laws. Experiences with this type of legislation have differed: while journalists in Trinidad and Tobago have used the law extensively to produce stories, in Belize the law has barely been used. Several other island nations in the Caribbean are exploring or currently discussing public information bills.

In Dominican Republic, journalist and university professor María Isabel Soldevila said her country’s public information access law was ranked the worst among 95 countries, according to a study done by Access Info Europe. Soldevila criticized the law for including several exceptions that allow government officials to easily avoid providing information.

In Colombia, the country’s first access to public information law was approved last year, which sets deadlines to answer requests and requires officials to demonstrate a legal support when they deny information, but also establishes a wide range of information categories that can be deemed classified and denied. The law has not been implemented yet.

Miriam Forero with Colombian journalism organization Consejo de Redacción, spoke of their database Zoom Online, where they have collected more than 2 million documents obtained through public information request that might be useful for other journalists.

In Argentina there isn’t a transparency law, just a decree that was approved in 2003 that describes public information as a “prerequisite to guarantee (public) participation.” Plenty of information in the country, however, remains inaccessible to the public, like the salaries of the president and the members of her cabinet, Juan Simo with the Argentine Journalism Forum said.

Some journalists believe it is necessary to have a public information law – not just a decree – to begin remedying the culture of secrecy in the country. Fopea has begun a social media campaign calling for the creation of such a law, Simo said.

And Fernando Rodrigues, a journalist with Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, praised his country’s young transparency laws for including all levels and branches of government, as well as state companies. Since its approval little less than two years ago, 80 percent of all requested public documents have been responded positively.

Journalists have also been prolific with the law. In the last 18 months, more than 800 stories in 68 media outlets have been produced using information obtained through the access law, Rodrigues said.

After the sessions, attendants separated into work groups and discussed ideas to improve the usage of transparency laws.

Many suggested creating a website that centralize databases, contacts, links and other resources that may help people find out more about public information access in the continent and develop collaborations between journalists and organizations. Participants concluded it is necessary for journalists to receive more training to become better acquainted with how these laws work, where government institutions hold information and how to appeal denials.

Finally, participants underscored the need to identify best practices when seeking public information, promote media transparency and create a repository where the best FOIA stories can be published to showcase outstanding journalistic work and encourage the use of these tools.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.