The Forum on the Right of Access to Public Information changed its composition and resumed activities to face threats against public transparency and to monitor compliance with the Access to Information Law (LAI, for its acronym in Portuguese) in Brazil.
The Forum was created in 2003, on the initiative of Abraji (Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism), to pressure governments for the approval of a law that guaranteed the right of access to public information, already provided for in the Constitution. The coalition is made up of civil society entities, media organizations and researchers.
After the sanction of the LAI in 2011, the Forum turned to monitoring and social control of compliance with the law. In 2017, however, due to a lack of a work force and resources, the coalition entered a period of demobilization. "At that time, it was not possible to maintain the Forum, which became more dispersed," project manager at Transparência Brasil and coalition coordinator, Marina Atoji, told the Knight Center. The group currently has 21 organizations and a researcher.
Atoji, who has participated in the Forum since 2011, says the return was motivated, among other reasons, by recent threats to LAI and public databases. In 2019, for example, the government of President Jair Bolsonaro published a decree that increased the number of civil servants who could impose secrecy on public documents. After strong reaction from civil society and Congress, the government reversed and revoked the decision.
"In 2019 there was this attack on the LAI and, if the Forum was working, it could have been smoother, more efficient. So we have already been talking about reactivating this channel, in order to be able to respond faster to these sudden measures,” Atoji explained.
The coalition resumed in March 2020, the same month that the federal government issued a provisional measure suspending deadlines for responding to requests via LAI during the coronavirus pandemic. This time, the Forum was ready and responded quickly, along with other partner networks.
"The measure came out, if I'm not mistaken, at night, and in the morning we were already discussing the [contrary] note. The text came out in the afternoon and was broadcast in several places. And, in the same week, we started to monitor the non-compliance with the LAI from the provisional measure," Luiz Fernando Toledo, who represents Abraji at the Forum, told the Knight Center.
The journalist, who is also vice president of the website Fiquem Sabendo, specializing in the LAI, said the provisional measure had several problems.
"Of course, the pandemic is a strong argument. The civil servants are very overloaded, many are telecommuting and will not be able to access a document in person. I don't think anyone would disagree that these are good reasons for refusing a request for information. What left everyone indignant is to make a provisional measure for this, with several ‘gotchas’: to extend indefinitely, not to accept any kind of appeal," he said.
The mobilization against the decision was great and grew beyond the bubble of journalists and researchers, which Toledo considers positive. "LAI was even trending topics on Twitter that day, which is interesting, because generally those who are not journalists do not know what it is. But when it was attacked, everyone realized the importance of having a transparency law," Toledo said. The LAI measure article was suspended by an injunction from the Federal Supreme Court (STF) on March 26.
According to Atoji, in addition to these attacks against transparency, there is also a fear among journalists and researchers that the Bolsonaro government will hamper access to socio-environmental information. She says there was "a risk of blackout" of this data, which also encouraged the resumption of the Forum.
"During the fires in the Amazon, for example, Bolsonaro tried to discredit the public data of the fires, this triggered an alert. There are reports from journalists that websites and databases that used to be updated weekly stopped being fed without justification, mainly about the environment or social issues. And, since a year ago, journalists have noticed that it has become more difficult to get this information, the answers take longer," she said.
Although the posture and measures of the current government are worrying, Atoji says that the attempts to go backwards are not exclusive to this president.
"Since the Dilma Rousseff administration, there have been threats to the LAI. There has already been a weakening, including budgetary, of the Union's Comptroller General, which is a federal body that monitors compliance with the law. Public transparency is never something that government officials do willingly, it always depends on pressure from civil society, a whip on the back, so as not to go back," she said.
In this context, the Forum is important to fight these attacks, but also to monitor and produce knowledge about the law, Atoji explained. The coalition will, for example, make requests from different powers at municipal, state and federal levels, to test compliance with LAI.
"We are going to do research on response and assistance rates, in addition to assessing active transparency. LAI has been in force for eight years and there are still municipalities and states that have not regulated the law. So the Forum can also pressure for politicians to comply at least with that minimum. Sometimes it works just to show that someone has an eye on it," she said.
For Toledo, the Forum can also be a haven for reporters, when their requests are not answered. "I, as a journalist, alone, always thought: 'look, there was non-compliance with LAI, with whom do I speak? Who can I turn to?'" he said.
He believes that the coalition, in addition to confronting governments for setbacks, should exercise a mediating role with public authorities in cases of non-compliance with the law. "Talking to civil servants, I understood that the change comes with dialogue, a lot is just a communication failure, a flow that doesn't work very well,” he said.
One of the advantages of the Forum is that each entity has a more specific area of knowledge and, thus, can complement each other. "Open Knowledge Brasil can help if the topic is related to open data, or ITS-Rio (Technology and Society Institute) can contribute to the intersection of the access to information law and data protection, for example," Atoji said.
The Forum will be coordinated by Transparência Brasil in the 2020-2021 biennium, as part of the actions of the project Achados e Pedidos (Findings and Requests). The project, financed by the Ford Foundation and carried out in partnership with Abraji, aims to strengthen transparency and LAI in the country.