Almost half of government institutions in Guatemala failed to present transparency reports, report says

By Alejandro Martínez

Forty-six percent of Guatemala's government institutions bound under the country's Access to Public Information Law (LAIP in Spanish) did not present their annual reports on how they responded to public information requests received during 2013, news website Plaza Pública reported.

The information comes a recent report from the country's Human Rights Prosecutor (PDH), Jorge de León, on the performance of the law -- and compliance with it -- five years after it was approved.

"Institutions that have not put an end to the culture of opacity, pending annual reports and discretional application surround the first five years of the Access to Public Information Law," Plaza Pública said.

According to the PDH, 667 government institutions and officials presented their annual reports in 2013, representing an increase in compliance of 95 percent compared with the 342 reports received in 2012.

However, 575 government institutions -- or 46 percent of the 1,241 state agencies required by law to submit reports -- failed to comply.

Almost 49 percent of them are municipal development entities and 28 percent mining extraction companies, Plaza Pública reported.

According to the news site, some of the non-compliant agencies have also failed to submit their reports in prior years and/or to respond to the PDH's reiterated requests for them. In response, De León has called on the country's authorities to issue sanctions against the institutions that failed to produce reports in 2012 and open criminal investigations against them.

Plaza Pública reported that this is be the first time that the PDH requests a criminal investigation against government entities that did not comply with the LAIP since the law was approved, even though De León admitted that recommending investigations did not necessarily mean authorities would open them.

"I'm a regulating authority, but without any teeth," he said.

David Galtán, with the NGO Acción Ciudadana -- which has filed complaints in the past against government institutions that have not complied with the LAIP, without any results -- applauded De León's call for criminal investigations.

"The PDH can start procedures that serve as an example to other officials who ignore or fail to comply with the LAIP," he said.

Guatemala's Access to Public Information Law was approved in 2008. During the 11th Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas, organized last November by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Plaza Pública journalist Alejandra Gutiérrez Valdizan described the law as a positive improvement toward transparency, but that its approval hasn't meant an end to the country's culture of opacity.

A Plaza Pública investigation of 75 government institutions found that each one of them responds to public information requests differently and that information is decentralized. The law also lacks sanctions against the government institutions that fail to respond to information requests, Gutiérrez said.

The PDH's report showed an overall increase in the number of public information requests made in the country. De León said it showed a growing interest among Guatemalans in using the tool, Plaza Pública reported.

Since the law was approved, the number of public information requests has increased gradually each year. The amount almost tripled between 2009 (with 11,289 requests) and 2013 (with 30,055).

The PDH also reported a high number of requests that concluded with the requested information being provided. Of the 100,157 total requests filed in the five years since the LAIP was passed, 94 percent of them have been approved.

However, it is unclear if noncompliance from the agencies that did not submit their reports affected the reports' statistics.

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.