For Brazilian journalists, the ability to keep their identity secret when requesting public data through the Law of Access to Information (LAI) has become easier recently.
Last week, the Ministry of Transparency and Comptroller General of the Union (CGU) began to allow citizens to request information from federal agencies anonymously. This made the country one of seven in the world to protect the identity of requesters, according to a study by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation of Rio de Janeiro (FGV-Rio).
With the new feature, the requester still needs to enter his or her personal data when requesting through the LAI, but the identity is known only to the CGU, according to newspaper Estadão. This means that the public servant in charge of providing the information does not know who asked the question.
Although the change is only for federal government agencies, journalists who want to remain anonymous when requesting data from state and municipal agencies (as well as federal ones) may also use a new tool from Open Knowledge Brazil called Queremos Saber (We want to know). The name is a tribute to the site for requesting information that was created by the group Transparência Hacker in 2011, even before LAI came into effect.
The platform acts as an intermediary to ask questions of public bodies. On the site, the user registers her request, which is forwarded to the government in the name of Open Knowledge. No personal information is logged — the user only has a protocol number that later gives them access to the response, as explained on Queremos Saber’s site.
One of the creators of the tool, Vitor Baptista, gathers the requests, discards those that do not fit the format of the LAI and registers the questions with the government agencies. "This process is easy to replicate in other countries, not least because this problem is not unique to Brazil. Queremos Saber is a very simple system, because it is done manually," Baptista explained to the Knight Center.
For Luiz Fernando Toledo, a reporter from Estado de S. Paulo who specializes in LAI, ensuring the anonymity of requesters can avoid biases in the responses and, consequently, improve the quality of the material sent by public agencies.
Last year, the journalist reported that a chief of staff of the city hall of São Paulo said he would complicate responses to requests made by Toledo and reporters from TV Globo and Agora São Paulo. In an audio recording of a meeting, the public official says he wants to make professionals give up reporting that could be negative to the government by making it more difficult to get answers throught. After the recording was revealed, the official was dismissed from his post. The city hall said there were no irregularities with transparency.
According to the Brazilian transparency law, public agencies can not take into account the motive or the author of the requests when producing the answers. "[In this case] we showed that the city hall had difficulty in complying with the legislation, and this remains a problem today," Toledo told the Knight Center.
A report from organization Article 19 that was published this year collected 16 instances of judicial intimidation, psychological pressure, identity exposure, political persecution and evasion of information with LAI applications.
For these reasons, protecting the privacy of citizens who request public information is an important demand of transparency advocates in Brazil, according to experts. The country had already made a commitment in this area in 2016, through the international Open Government Partnership (OGP) initiative.
The next step in improving Brazilian transparency is to extend the protection of the identity of requesters to other spheres of public power, Toledo said. "In the case of local governments, the obstacle is very large. First because many have no channel of transparency, or have a precarious channel. There are even more basic problems than identity protection. It is precisely in these cases that the problem is more serious," he said.
Baptista emphasizes the fact that the Queremos Saber system of requests can not be automated because there is no standardized way of registering questions through the LAI between the different instances of the government. "Before, making requests by email was accepted, which would facilitate automation. In other countries, it is possible to ask questions in this way," he pointed out.
The way the government has implemented the anonymisation of LAI requests is also a source of criticism. The fact that the CGU still knows the identity of the applicants does not guarantee the total security of the request, according to Baptista. Experts also point to the need for an independent control agency to monitor the quality of responses.
Despite these factors, Baptista realizes that since the LAI was sanctioned in 2012, there has been an improvement in public perception about the importance of government transparency. "I remember asking for information and the employees printed, stamped, signed, scanned and sent me the document,” he said. “For me, the biggest breakthrough we've had is the cultural shift between public servants and citizens.”
Editor’s note: Knight Center blog contributor Alessandra Monnerat, who wrote this story, also works for the newspaper Estado de S. Paulo, cited in this post.