Q&A: Brazilian journalist Fernando Rodrigues discusses the country's journey toward a freedom of information law

Renowned Brazilian journalist Fernando Rodrigues, who has worked as a reporter, editor, foreign correspondent, and columnist and was a Nieman Fellow in 2007, has been instrumental in the push for Brazil to finally adopt a freedom of information law. The president of the Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism (Abraji), which is one of the world's top investigative groups, Rodrigues also played a key role in the 2004 launch of the Forum for the Right to Access Public Information. Due in part to years of Rodrigues' tireless efforts campaigning for freedom of information, Brazil finally is poised to enact a public information access law. The Brazilian Senate's Commission of Science and Technology and Commission on Human Rights will meet Tuesday, April 19, to recommend approval of an information access bill that President Dilma Rousseff is expected to sign into law May 3. The Knight Center spoke with Rodrigues about his role in campaigning for the law, what such a law will mean for Brazil, and the proposed Open Government Partnership that the United States and Brazil are expected to lead.

Knight Center: First, can you explain why you think there was such hesitation for so long to pass/support an information access law?

Fernando Rodrigues: In reality, in all countries the process to approve a law always is long. In the United States, it took more than a decade from the time debate began until the FOIA was approved. It all depends on the pressures and demands of society.

Brazil experienced 21 years of a military dictatorship (1964-1985). Then came the demands to elect a president directly, and control the economy (the country experienced more than 10 years of high inflation and little growth).
When democracy finally was installed, in the second half of the 90s, Brazilian society became a little more sophisticated. Other demands came forward. At the beginning of the 21st Century, in 2002, the creation of Abraji was a milestone for the right to access public information. Abraji conducted seminars, informed journalists (who were not yet very aware of the issue) and put pressure on Congress and the presidential administration to pass a law. As this was a very new subject, with little appeal in society, there was this delay.

KC: What has been your role in pushing for such a law?

FR: Since I am part of the leadership of Abraji in Brasília, I have the responsibility to monitor the issue nad propose new actions in this regard. Also I had to take care of the organization and coordination (along with other associations) of the Forum for the Right to Access Public Information: www.informacaopublica.org.br. It is now a coalition of 25 civil society associations that are in favor of an access law. All entities of the Forum had a key role in the effort to convince the authorities about the need for a law in Brazil.
It is important here to note that the Forum was created in 2003, during an international seminar about the theme that was promoted by Abraji in Brasília. Abraji directors Marcelo Beraba and Fernando Molica played a major role in creating the Forum. And Professor Rosental Calmon Alves [who is founder of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas] was one of the creators behind the seminar, and is one of the reasons why Brazil today is close to having a law.
In my case specifically, I helped coordinate the work of the Forum during the past eight years, since I was designated by Abraji and physically located in Brasília [the capital of Brazil]. Fortunately, it is worth the effort of having talked to so many congress members, senators and ministers. It was slow work of evangelization on the need for a law. But it seems to be working.

KC: Why now do you think a law finally is moving forward?

FR: Democracy, like everything in life, has cycles. In Brazil the cycle just ended of eight years of Lula's government. Now, I imagine, the new political players understand the necessity of having institutional advances that weren't possible in previous years. It seems to me this is the case in terms of the presidential administration in relation to adopting a law on access.

KC: Why is it so important for Brazil to have such a law?

FR: Brazil is one of the largest economies in the world and a nation important to the democratic balance in South America By having an access law, the country sends a strong signal toward more freedom of information - which is vital for South American countries.

KC: What do you think of this U.S./Brazil initiative for transparency? What sorts of impacts might it have?

FR: It is very important that countries coordinate efforts such as this, because the globalized world requires global initiatives. It's a way to encourage more transparency of public data.

KC: Anything else you want to add?

FR: I would like to say that the week ends here in Brazil with great optimism about the eventual adoption of the law. But I emphasize that when dealing with a bill still in the Senate, it is necessary to be careful and hope that the text is actually approved. And then that it is signed by President Dilma Rousseff. If all this happens, Brazil will have a law that might not be perfect, but it has major innovations - including in comparison to the U.S. and other countries.
The parts of the bill are not very positive are:
1) the maximum period of confidentiality (for classified secret documents) can reach, in some cases, up to 50 years (one term too long), 2) it has not created an independent regulatory agency to lead the process of enforcement.
Some of the positive aspects are:
1) Although some documents may remain classified up to 50 years, there are many difficulties to make this happen. It is necessary that government ministers personally make this classification and outline in detail their reasons for doing so.
2) Although no regulatory agency is created, the law is quite detailed on the procedures available for those who wish to have access to information. There are many punishments for public officials who break the law.
3) Unlike many countries, the Brazilian law applies to all municipal governments (5,600 cities), states (27 governors) and the President of the Republic. It also applies to the Judicial and Legislative branches, in all their levels. Finally, all firms or NGOS that work for the government or receive public funds also are subject to the law. As far as I know, no other country has produced a law with a spectrum as broad as the Brazilian one.
4) Another piece of great relevance requires all public agencies to disclose annually a complete list of all documents that were classified, some sort of identification and the period within which these papers will become public. These listings are a powerful tool in the hands of society to hold governments accountable.
In addition to lists of classified documents, public agencies are also required to make a statistical report with the number of information queries approved and refused, with detailed explanations about it.

Other Related Headlines:
» Knight Center (New Knight Center map highlights state of information access throughout Latin America)
» Freedominfo.org (Rousseff Praise Brightens Outlook for Brazilian FOI Bill)

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.