Latin American laws on access to public information are among the best in the world: Unesco report

More than 100 countries in the world have a law in their national legislation that allows access to public information. Latin America is the region with developing countries that has advanced most in this respect, even surpassing certain aspects of the laws of European Union countries, according to the recent Unesco report, "Access to Information: Lessons from Latin America.”

With the exception of Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba and Venezuela, most countries in Latin America have laws that guarantee access to official information. Even some Latin American laws are considered among the best in the world, according to the report, prepared by U.S. investigative journalist Bill Orme.

Orme interviewed three experts on freedom of information who led the implementation of the laws in Mexico, Chile and Brazil.

Jacqueline Peschard Mariscal, former director of the Federal Institute for Access to Information of Mexico (IFAI for its acronym in Spanish); Juan Pablo Olmedo, former president of the Transparency Council of Chile; and José Eduardo Elías Romão, Brazil's first Ombudsman, agreed that the implementation and social impact of the law is the most important objective.

The report was presented by Orme during the First International Workshop of the Global Alliance for Reporting Progress on Promoting Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, organized by UN Development Program, UN Office on Drugs and Crime and Unesco, which took place from June 14 to 16 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

For several countries in the region, one of their great challenges is to protect journalists from attacks and threats. It’s also to safeguard the freedom of the press and the daily access to public information so that they are not restricted, the former Latin American commissioners and defenders of freedom of information highlighted.

Since September 2015, United Nations member countries have unanimously adopted Agenda 2030, which establishes national and global development policy guidelines for the next 15 years.

Among these guidelines is the list of sustainable development objectives, which include ensuring public access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national laws and international agreements.

The study performs a detailed analysis of Mexico’s law, which was adopted 15 years ago and is considered to be the model law worldwide; the law from Chile, which has been in effect for almost 10 years; and that of Brazil, which has just turned five-years-old.

The laws of Mexico, Chile and Brazil have common political origins, as they were approved as a deliberate rejection of the recent authoritarian past of those countries, and as a collective effort to build legal safeguards to prevent the return of undemocratic regimes, the report said.

The study also points to the U.S. and Canada, which adopted their laws of access to information in 1966 and 1983, respectively, as antecedents of the adoption of these laws on the American continent and in the world. Colombia was the first Latin American country to adopt a law of this kind, recognizing it as a right of its citizens, in 1985. According to the report, few democracies in other regions of the world had taken that step in those years.

The study lists the Global Right to Information Rating index of the Center for Law and Democracy (CLD), which classifies the Mexican law as number one in the world, among the more than one hundred national laws analyzed by this body. Brazil's law is the second highest level in Latin America, according to the CLD, which places it in 22nd place. The Colombian law ranks 30th and Chile's 43rd.

Concerning Mexico's law, Peschard, the ex-director of IFAI, told Omer: "It is a very respectable law, even an exemplary law. (...) It’s a law that imposes basic standards and transparency obligations on all the states as well as on the federal government. But what is equally important is that civil society and media groups participated in designing and promoting the law, and now they are using it (both at the state and national level). "

However, Mexico is the most dangerous country for journalists in the Western Hemisphere. In the last ten years, at least 21 cases of Mexican journalists murdered with total impunity have been recorded in the country, and their cases have not been presented by authorities or discussed or verified in the courts, according to the study, which cited information from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“Only in the last ten years or so has investigative journalism been a norm in the profession in Mexico. The journalists are at greater risk, without question, but people are better informed than in the past. This is the paradox,” Peschard explained.

Concerning Chile's law – which came into force the year after it was approved and under the supervision of a new Chilean Transparency Council – Olmedo, the former president of that organization, said that the law has fostered a new sensitivity among new Chilean officials who are now more aware of their "obligation to be transparent.”

In Brazil, unlike Mexico and Chile, and many other countries such as the United States, Canada and the nations of the European continent, officials may reject requests for access to information if they find that their motivations are commercial and private in character.

Journalists, lawyers and public officials themselves, but for partisan purposes, are the ones who use the law the most, according to Romão, former Ombudsman of Brazil.

Proof of frequent use of the law by journalists are the numerous reports and news stories replete with examples of excessive spending of public funds and corruption, he said.

However, "there are many people in poor communities who don’t have access to these services and would not know how to use them if they did,” Romão said. "For them, the law and their right to information is something distant and abstract, if they know about it at all. This inequality of access is the greatest challenge we face, not only in Brazil but throughout most of Latin America.”

Another goal to reach, according to experts interviewed by Orme, is the reduction of the socioeconomic "digital divide" that exists in the countries of the region. Meaning the little to zero access to the internet that the less favored sectors of society have, which makes them unable to access this public service and the use of their fundamental rights.

The report also highlights the importance of regional exchange of advice and technical assistance in the design and management of official systems for access to information. All this should be done with the support and guidance of multilateral institutions such as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations (UN).

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.