Chile’s transparency law stands out as an investigative tool; in Uruguay, bureaucracy hinders its implementation

Chilean journalist Claudia Urquieta from the online newspaper El Mostrador highlighted the importance of Chile’s transparency law as an investigative tool during the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas’ 11th Austin Forum, which took place on Nov. 8 and 9 at the University of Texas at Austin.

Under this law, which was enacted in 2009, public institutions and agencies must respond to requests for information within 20 to 30 days. If they do not provide the information, or release it partially or late, the person who requested the information can file a complaint or appeal to the Transparency Council. The applicant can also appeal if the public entities did not justify its denial of information under the exceptions described in the law (when the topic affects national security, citizens’ private lives, public security etc.).

The law requires institutions to be actively transparent by constantly updating information on their websites like budgets, worker payrolls and general expenditures. It also establishes penalties to those who don’t comply, which apply to both the public official who does not respond to an information request and the head of the institution, who can be suspended or fined depending on the nature of the infraction.

One example of journalists using the law was the case of an airplane accident that took place on September 2, 2011 in Chile’s Juan Fernández Islands that newspaper La Tercera investigated.

One of the newspaper’s reporters requested that the Chilean Air Force release information regarding entries about the plane in their maintenance logs, but the Air Force denied the request citing national security concerns. However, the law permits citizens to consult any public institution, allowing the reporter to seek another path after the Air Force denied his request and contact the Defense Ministry, where he finally got a reply.

Shortly after, the head of the Defense Ministry, Andrés Allamand, told the press that he would assume full responsibility if a major problem was found in the air fleet.

Several Air Force officials had to resign from their positions after La Tercera’s story was published, Urquieta said.

For the Chilean journalist, the transparency law should allow reporters to go beyond the limits of the public sphere since many basic services in the country are privately run, such as education, healthcare, pension services and many others.

The most important task for journalists in Chile, according to Urquieta, is to have a more complete understanding of the law to know how to use it appropriately as an investigative tool and as such, know how to ask for information, through what channels, and what can be requested.

One of the major obstacles, Urquieta said, is there are few reassurances that the Transparency Council will remain independent in the future due to its lack of resources and the workload it must handle -- this year alone, it has received 1,500 requests it must review. She also pointed out that the president and two-thirds of the Senate pick the Council’s members. It has shown independence until now, she said, but whether this situation can continue into subsequent governments has yet to be seen.

In Uruguay, journalist Rosario Radakovich said a public information access law was approved in late 2008 and has helped citizens increase their participation in state processes and decision-making. Since the law’s implementation, journalists have achieved a greater and better access to public information in general.

Nevertheless, in a “leftist progressive country” where the president enjoys an approval rating above 50 percent, civic organizations and journalists often lack objective distance and any criticism of his performance is rarely well received, Radakovich said.

Radakovich said that after the law was approved, state organizations had two years to reclassify their information as public, reserved, or confidential. The government had to give them two years more after that so the agencies could finish organizing the information to comply with the law. According to a report by CAinfo, only 2 of the 38 state agencies at the national level presented the information on time.

The lack of institutional compliance with the law, its direct dependence on the Executive office and the limited social interest in the law from people other than journalists and activists, are the main obstacles to the law according to Radakovich.

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.