Brazil pushing forward with information access law, joining U.S. for transparency partnership

After years of proposed transparency laws that went nowhere, a freedom of information act is gaining momentum in Brazil, where newly elected President Dilma Rousseff is expected to finally sign such a law on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, according to Brazilian media like Valor and acritica.com. What's more, once it has an information access law in place, Brazil is expected to join the United States in leading an international transparency campaign, Valor said.

News of what has been dubbed the Open Government Partnership, which will involve at least 75 nations and is expected to be formally announced at the opening of the United Nations' general assembly in September in New York, comes after U.S. President Barack Obama visited Brazil in March.

While Brazil's constitution technically guarantees citizens' right to information, the country has no such laws to regulate access, making Brazil one of the few countries in Latin America without a freedom of information law. As Brazilian columnist Marcelo Soares wrote Wednesday, access to public information is the most fundamental, but little-known, right. "A law that guarantees the right of access to public information lets the citizens know what is happening NOW. Or what happened recently...The public hearing this week is extremely important. Keep an eye on it. And if anyone reading this column is a Senator, think fondly about helping speed up voting on the bill."

Greg Michener, who studied the adoption of access to public information laws across Latin America, found that the lack of Brazilian news media coverage of information access was one of the main factors for why the country has never approved an access law.

After an intense freedom of information campaign and an International Seminar for Access to Public Information organized by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI), Article 19, and the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, an information access bill finally was introduced in Congress in 2009. It passed the lower chamber in April 2010, and, despite more than 70 Brazilian and international organizations and experts urging passage of an information access law, the bill has been waiting for Senate approval ever since.

Then Wednesday, April 13, Sen. Walter Pinheiro of the Communication, Science and Technology Commission recommended passage of the bill the chamber previously had approved, according to the Forum for the Right of Access to Public Information. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure Wednesday, April 20.

Still, the bill contains two controversial measures that could prove problematic for passage, the Forum explained.

First, the current text says that top secret documents can remain confidential for no more than 50 years. But during a Senate hearing Wednesday, Pedro Frederico de Figueiredo Garcia, representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, argued that this limitation would make Brazil vulnerable. The Forum added, however, that there are no signs Rousseff would accept changes to this section of the proposed law.

The second controversial aspect, the Forum said, is that the law would create a joint executive, legislative and judicial commission to oversee the release of information. Folha explained that the concern is that such a commission would violate the Brazilian Constitution's principle of separation of powers. However, this section could be placed in a separate paragraph that would allow it alone to be vetoed if it is deemed unconstitutional, without impacting the rest of the measure.

For more information about freedom of information in Latin America, see this Knight Center map.

Other Related Headlines:
» ABRAJI (UNESCO funds Brazilian journalist training for information access)
» Folha Online (Access law formalizes idea that government information is public)

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.