Faring about on par with Asia, better than Africa but worse than Europe, only about 38 percent of countries in Latin America were fully responsive to freedom of information requests filed by the Associated Press (AP) as part of a 105-country-wide project, the AP told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. In general, more than half of countries don't abide by their freedom of information laws, MediaBistro noted.
Of 18 Latin American countries that were part of the AP's project to test freedom of information laws, seven sent the AP all of the records it asked for within the time frame allotted by law: Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, and Uruguay. An eighth country, Peru, sent partial information.
Four countries -- Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama -- responded with some information, but it wasn't useful. "They responded with something different than what we were looking for," said Eduardo Castillo, news editor for AP's Spanish service in Mexico City.
Five countries completely ignored the AP's information requests: Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Brazil. "It was a frustrating process in countries we didn’t hear from, both in Latin America and elsewhere," said Martha Mendoza, AP national writer and lead writer on the right-to-know project. "We followed up, called their offices, and they said 'maybe it’s coming,' or 'we'll look into it,' and then we got nothing specific."
The only Latin American country to deny the information request was Argentina, which cited "national security." "It is concerning that they would convict someone as a terrorist and then not make that public because it can lead to abuses," Mendoza said. "The whole point of freedom of information laws is to hold people accountable and to do that you’ve got to have transparency."
In January of this year, the AP sent information requests to 105 countries that have freedom of information laws or constitutional provisions. By 2010, more than half the world's population was covered by freedom of information laws, so "I thought it important to test them because a lot of governments are promising transparency and we wanted to hold them accountable," Mendoza said.
The AP asked countries to provide the number of people arrested and people convicted on terrorism charges since 9-11, finding that 35,000 people around the world have been convicted. Not stopping there, the AP then decided to analyze the process of filing for the terrorism-related information requests.
Countries in Africa performed the worst, with 11 out of 15 ignoring the information requests.
Guatemala responded the fastest of all countries, providing the information requested in a mere 10 days, Mendoza said.
Most of the laws or constitutional provisions for freedom of information in Latin America have only been put into place within the last decade, which is a short period of time, especially in comparison with the United States, which adopted a sunshine law in 1966, Castillo said. "Countries in Latin America are still trying to understand and know how to use these kind of laws," he said.
See this Knight Center map for more details about freedom of information laws throughout Latin America.
Mexico's law, adopted in 2002, is the "gold standard," Mendoza said, pointing out that any requests can be filed online -- even anonymously --, and the responses also are provided online, making the information publicly available to anyone. "They're a model of excellence," she said.
Castillo and Mendoza pointed out that it is notable that Brazil, which just entered into an open government partnership with the United States to spearhead a global transparency effort, ignored the AP's information request. After years of batting around an information law -- the country only has a constitutional provision -- Brazil's congress in October finally approved a sunshine law that now is awaiting President Dilma Rousseff's signature.
Obviously, Mendoza said, "whether a country has or is complying with a law are two very different things."
In "the spirit of transparency," the AP, which files more than 1,000 freedom of information requests in the United States alone each year, is "opening its notebooks," posting via DocumentCloud spreadsheets with information about how long each country took to respond to the information requests, the responses they provided, and other information about the laws, which will be useful for advocates and for countries who want to see how they compared to others, Mendoza said.
The AP also is opening a web space for readers to suggest information they believe AP reporters should request. "We want to know because we want do more of this," Mendoza said. "We really see this as a public service." She added, "In general the AP is very firm in our commitment to not be advocates for anything, but freedom of information is an important tool for media and we do push for freedom of information laws to be robust."