84 percent of public information requests approved since Brazil's sunshine law went into effect, but problems still remain

By Isabela Fraga

Since the Brazilian Law of Information Access went into effect on May 16, the Brazilian federal government has received 17,516 requests to access documents and other information. Of these requests, roughly 84 percent were approved, according to data presented on Monday, July 16, in the Brazilian General Comptroller of the Union´s (CGU in Portuguese) report, according to the news portal Uol.

Federal prosecutor Vânia Vieira, director of corruption prevention for the CGU, the entity responsible for the law's application at the federal level, already had presented part of the data relating to the executive federal power during the last day of the 7th International Congress on Investigative Journalism, which took place in São Paulo and was organized by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji in Portuguese).

While the executive power considers this assessment to be positive, the same cannot be said about the state and municipal governments. During the two months of the law's application, only 10 Brazilian states conformed to the new law, said Fabiano Angélico, CGU's counselor and researcher for the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, according to the newspaper O Globo. This means that less than half of the Brazilian states made decrees to facilitate citizen's access to public information.

Vânia Vieira participated in a discussion about the information access law, along with journalist Fernando Rodrigues, from the newspaper Folha de São Paulo and the Right to Access to Public Information Forum, and with political scientist Guilherme Canela, UNESCO's communication and information adviser for Mercosul and Chile.

According to the CGU, the federal agencies that received most requests for information access were the Superintendency of Private Insurance, which received 11 percent; the National Institute of Social Security with 7 percent; and the Brazilian Banco Central with 4.5 percent of the requests. These numbers were extracted from the period between the law's application (May 16) and July 16.

According to the CGU, the average time for responding to requests is nine-and-a-half days, while the maximum number of days allowed according to the law is 20 days. The main reason for denying the 1,404 requests (9.5 percent of total requests) was because they were about personal data. Vieira believes that a small number of denied requests are due to sensitive documents: about 140 of the total, which makes one percent of all the denied requests. "Under the federal executive power, the law´s application seems to be working. We can say that the glass is half full," she said.

Private and Public
While the data about the federal government responding to information requests seems positive, it must be carefully analyzed, said journalist Fernando Gallo, from the newspaper Estado de São Paulo. For Gallo, the fact that the majority of requests were processed does not mean that those who requested information necessarily received the information they ask for. "I already received a lot of information that did not match with what I was requesting," said the journalist.

For journalist Fernando Rodrigues, who participated in the Abraji discussion with Vieira, said, "In a way, the glass is half empty." For him, it is necessary to scrutinize the law´s mentioned success since there are still many problems that have not been resolved by the Brazilian government. "The law´s success heavily depends on the modernization of the concept of public information, for example," said the journalist. "If a private company wants to destroy a mountain to extract tin from it, the information it used for this project must be public. The gray area of the discussion of what is private and what is public is long, difficult, and crucial."

Vieira responded to Rodrigues' critique saying that complicated cases such as company investments, sponsorships, NGOs, etc., are likely to be discussed in court. "It is not trivial to establish a limiting point between information considered public and not," said the prosecutor. "In the government, the principle that must inspire any interpretation is that of access."

Political scientist Guilherme Canela said during the private-versus-public discussion that the absence of an independent regulating entity for the information access law is a problem. "It is necessary to have people that solely dedicate their time to these large issues, which are different from the every day issues brought by the law's application," Canela said. "Internationally, these cases were resolved faster when there was a body dedicated to its discussion, such as a council or an information commissioner, as in England's case." For Canela, understanding how other countries resolve and think about these topics is important to improve access to public information in Brazil.

While there was no disagreement that the application of the Brazilian Information Access Law was a citizen´s victory, now the challenge is to improve the law's implementation and provide detailed analysis of government data. How and when will all states and municipalities put access to public information in practice? How to define what is public and what is private? How to spread a culture where anybody can -- and should -- have access to government data? How will information and documents produced every day in public entities be managed? There are still no definite answers, but the discussion and public awareness are, without doubt, important steps.

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.