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Brazil's new sunshine law won't shine without media, public support

The bill enabling the constitutional right to access public information in Brazil passed its last hurdle in the South American country's Senate on Oct. 25. The Senate approved the reforms made by the lower house in 2010 and resisted amendments in favor of sealing some secret government documents indefinitely.

The bill will go into effect 180 days after President Dilma Rousseff signs it into law. Nevertheless, there is still a way to go before the law can be effectively applied. However long the process takes to apply the law in its fullest intent depends on social pressure and the press, opined Greg Michener, a specialist on sunshine laws in Latin America. Michener spoke with the Knight Center soon after the Senate's approval of the long awaited bill.

"The media has an important role post-approval. If the public doesn't hear about the law, it won't be used and refined. So, this means that the media not only has to use the law, it has to speak about it too. The greater the demand, the greater the pressure on the government to operate effectively," said Michener.

"Another question involves resources. In the United States, for example, the sunshine law costs nearly $900 million to process 600,000 request per year. It's expensive to improve government systems so that they have an organized database and qualified professionals to look for this information and respond to requests. The Brazilian archival system is not great and it's going to need improvement. This requires leadership that's committed to the law's efficacy," he added.

In Michener's opinion, the Brazilian bill goes, in some aspects, a step further than similar laws in other countries. "Brazil is one of the first countries in the world to require government websites to provide information an open format. This facilitates the exchange and analysis of information made by transparency movements." Another innovation is the bill's scope, applying to all levels of government (federal, state and municipal) and the three branches of government, the executive, legislative and judicial. This is not found in similar sunshine laws in the United States and Chile.

Michener pointed out that there were still a few setbacks and areas in need of clarification:

*Supervisory Body: "In other countries, like Canada and Mexico, this organization is autonomous. Here, they opted for the Comptroller General of the Union, which is not independent and has other responsibilities unrelated to improving transparency."

* Levels of secrecy: "This is peculiar. There is only one level of secrecy and one period of time information can be sealed under international standards. The creation of thee levels of secrecy could confuse government administrators and create license for them to classify things arbitrarily."

* Resources: "The bill's dealing with this is not ideal. This is a very important point because even in countries where the law works well, like Mexico and New Zealand, there are many problems with the handling of requests and administrative silence. The citizen needs a quick and free way to appeal a denial."

On his blog, journalist Fernando Rodrigues, one of the main leaders of the campaign for the right to access information in Brazil, also highlighted other advances and undefined areas of the bill. He pointed out how one of the most interesting aspects of the bill is a device that lets citizens sidestep public officials when requesting classified information by making the requests online by e-mail or through public entity websites.

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