After years of delays, Brazilian senate passes sunshine law, which awaits president's signature

Nearly two years after the bill was first introduced in the National Congress, the Brazilian Senate approved the Public Information Access Law on Oct. 25, reported G1. During the bill's long road to ratification it depended on the support of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji in Portuguese), the NGO Article 19, and the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. Along with these organizations, journalists like Fernando Rodrigues, who led the campaign for the right to access to information in Brazil, were also critical in the bill's passage. The only step left is President Dilma Rousseff's signature.

Senators also rejected, by a 43-to-nine vote margin, former president Fernando Collor's amendment from the Chamber of Deputies that would open the possibility to indefinitely seal certain documents from the public.

The law sets deadlines and rules classifying when information would be made public according to the following scale: ultra-secret (25 years with the possibility to review once); secret (15 years); undisclosed (5 years), explained the newspaper Folha de São Paulo. The law's objective is to establish parameters so that public administration offices observe and guarantee the constitutional right to access information.

The first step to implementing the law is to distribute the documents according to their degree of secrecy. Items considered public should be made available for review whenever there is a request, reported the magazine Veja. The law applies to all levels of executive government as well as to the legislature and judiciary, a step beyond sunshine laws in the United States and Chile.

Article 19, an NGO that works to promote and defend freedom of expression and access to information, celebrated the bill's passage. The NGO asserted that the lack of a sunshine law was a direct contradiction to Brazil prominent role in the Open Government Partnership, an international initiative to improve government transparency.

Bills in favor of improving access to information had been circulating in the Congress since 2003, when the Forum for the Right to Access Public Information was created during an international seminar on the topic hosted by Abraji in the capital, Brasília. Fernando Rodrigues told the Knight Center in an interview that the directors of Abraji at the time, Marcelo Beraba and Fernando Molica, played an important role in the creation of the Forum. According to Rodrigues, professor Rosental Calmon Alves, founder of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, was one of the meeting's creators and has Brazil's thanks as the bill is close to being signed into law.

The bill was approved by the Chamber of Deputies in April 2010 but the Senate had only recently passed it. Despite the efforts of the bill's supporters, its vote was repeatedly delayed in the upper house by ex-presidents Collor and Sarney, who supported keeping ultra-secret documents sealed indefinitely.

After President Rousseff signs the bill into law, Brazil will become the 89th country in the world to pass specific legislation regulating the right to access public information, according to Abraji. Brazil will become the 19th Latin American country to adopt similar legislation. For more information on sunshine laws in the continent, see this map from the Knight Center.

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