Guest post: Brazil’s information access law and the right to know

Guest post by Fabiano Angélico*

Some scholars link the presence of a freedom of information law in a county to its level of social and economic development. After all, the first country to pass such a law was Sweden, a nation that charts highly on human development indices. The second was Finland, another place considered among the best in the world to live. The United States was the third country to pass a law guaranteeing access to public information.

Based on evidence that, by promoting transparency, an information access law strengthens democratic institutions and improves the lives of citizens, nearly 90 countries have now passed laws of this kind. Brazil, however, is not among them: an information access law has been pending in Congress since 2009, without garnering significant attention from the public.

Just two weeks ago, the Brazilian media “discovered” the bill and began to cover it. In truth, it would be wrong to suggest the press is really discussing the proposed law even now, as they have only honed in on the debate over a single clause that deals with access to top-secret documents (the bill has 47 articles).

Journalistically, it makes sense to highlight this part of the bill, as this issue is undeniably important. Beyond this, the debate over a concept like “secrecy” is appealing to media audiences and is easily understood by broad segments of the population.

However, an information access law is much more than this. A broad law regulating access to public information guarantees government transparency by creating norms that give citizens access to all (with a few exceptions) the information and documents that a government possesses. A law allows members of the public to access information on disparate topics ranging from housing policy to antitrust enforcement.

Any person – a journalist, a researcher, or simply an interested party – can, for example, request documents on housing construction and ask a local government to reveal its criteria for choosing who is enrolled in the housing program. With respect to antitrust suits, anyone can view documents from public offices that, for example, permit mergers between major corporations.

In short: access to information help by the government is essential both for the fundamental work done by the press and for the confidence that citizens have in democratic institutions.

One can hope that the public and the media do not forget this issue and that they press for the quick passage of Brazil’s law guaranteeing access to public information.

*Fabiano Angélico is a journalist specialized in transparency, accountability, and corruption. He has done graduate studies at the Human Rights Center at the University of Chile and is currently a Masters student and researcher at the Center for Public Administration and Government Studies at Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation.

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.