Journalists use Access to Information Law to reveal expenditures of former presidents and disseminate the culture of public transparency in Brazil

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  • February 7, 2023

*By Fernanda Giacomassi, originally published by Ajor

The disclosure of corporate card expenses in the administration of Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro (Liberal Party or PL, by its Portuguese acronym) shook the national and international news in January. The data, which were kept secret during Bolsonaro’s term, were made available by the General Secretariat of the Presidency on January 6, but only gained visibility after the transparency work done by organizations such as Fiquem Sabendo.

The data agency specialized in Access to Information Law (LAI, by its Portuguese acronym) had filed, in December 2022, a request for the publication of the corporate card expenses of all former presidents of Brazil. The approval arrived on Jan. 11, and the data were made available by Fiquem Sabendo in the newsletter Don't LAI to me. In just one day, the agency counted more than 800 mentions in the press in stories about this topic.

"Our following on social media has more than doubled in size since the release [of the credit card data]. The biggest impact was seen on Twitter, with more than 1 million views and 20,000 new followers. On Instagram, we went from 5,000 to more than 20,000 followers," Luiz Fernando Toledo, Fiquem Sabendo's editor, told Ajor.

Over the past five years, Fiquem Sabendo has been working to reveal hidden data and disseminate a culture of public transparency for society and journalism. Winner of the Cláudio Weber Abramo Data Journalism Award in 2019, the agency has published more than 600 pieces of content with [previously] unpublished information from governments.

Toledo says that, in recent years, there has been an increase in the number of journalists and newsrooms that are guided by transparency: "Journalism, in general, did not pay attention to this topic as it does to public health or education, for example. There was never, in any newsroom, a reporter or specialist in transparency. Now, perhaps also driven by the absurd secrecy of information of public interest during the Bolsonaro government, this issue has reached the headlines and even the debate of the presidential candidates [during the 2022 elections].”

He adds, however, that at a time of crisis of confidence in the press, it is necessary that journalists study the [Access to Information] law in depth so that feature stories are clearer and the information can be verified, including by readers. "There was a lot of confusion about the disclosure of the so-called '100 years of secrecy' [imposed by Bolsonaro’s government on information of public interest] and it was believed that this was because it is still a little-known subject in general, not only by journalists but also by specialists and the public administration itself," he said.

LAI in newsrooms

Agência Pública is an example of a news outlet that uses LAI for its coverage. In December 2022, the organization launched its largest crowdfunding campaign – the project “Caixa-Preta do governo Bolsonaro” (“Bolsonaro’s government Black Box”).  The goal was to maintain a team dedicated to investigating crimes committed during the past administration. The agency, which had also filed a request for access to the spending of presidents' corporate cards, is publishing stories with in-depth analyses of the data.

"During the last government, several of our requests made via the press office or government sources were denied because of the aggressive stance Bolsonaro had towards the press," Bruno Fonseca, editor and multimedia reporter for Agência Pública, said. "The LAI was one of the most important tools we used to get around authoritarianism and access important data," he said. For the "Caixa-Preta" project alone, the Pública team has already filed more than 100 requests via LAI.

The approval of the Access to Information Law was driven by the creation, in 2003, of the Forum for the Right of Access to Public Information, a coalition of civil society organizations that aimed to mobilize government and society for the regulation of this right. The initiative is led by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) and currently has 30 member organizations, including the Association of Digital Journalism (Ajor).

"The LAI was promoted by journalists, but it is a civilizing law that benefits society as a whole. Any citizen in any city or neighborhood can request data of a public nature," Fernando Rodrigues, first coordinator of the coalition and director of Abraji at the time, stated in the ebook "LAI is 10", published in 2022 in celebration of the ten years of the enactment of the legislation.

What to expect from the new government

Public transparency was one of the themes of President Lula's election campaign. In his inauguration speech at the National Congress, on Jan. 1, he stressed the importance of LAI and said that the right to access information will be respected again during his mandate.

Toledo, from Fiquem Sabendo, sees the moment as an opportunity to advance on other fronts, such as in the technical improvement of the agencies that deal with data for both active transparency (the one made available on the government's website without anyone asking for it) and passive transparency (when someone solicits a public agency through an information request). "It is necessary to have more people working on the matter to avoid mistakes, speed up searches and obtain the most relevant data. We also hope the government corrects the historical error of keeping information secret indefinitely," he said.

Fonseca, from Agência Pública, is optimistic about the new government's promise of transparency, but says that journalism should not stop investigating: "We will keep pressing for data and investigating independently from the government.” The journalist also said that the corporate card data released in January is incomplete, and that it is up to the new administration to clarify conflicting information.

How to start investigating with LAI

"Make lots of requests. See what other people have already done and how they used the data obtained. Also, query many agencies and see how they respond, how far you can go, with what level of detail," Toledo said.

In 2021, Fiquem Sabendo launched WikiLAI, a repository, in a similar format to Wikipedia, with entries that teach how to use LAI in practice and explain in detail how Brazilian public transparency works. The project also condenses lessons learned by the organization during the more than ten thousand requests for information made throughout its trajectory. "The LAI is made by people for people, so there is no math or magic rule. The learning comes through experience," Toledo said.

For Fonseca, the main tip for those who want to start investigating with the tool is patience. "The LAI is not an easy tool to use because it has its own grammar that changes according to the topic you are investigating," he said.

The journalist explained that it is important for reporters to find out from experts in the field what kind of document they should ask for via LAI. "Don't think of the law as an isolated tool — it works alongside interviews with experts and conversations with sources. It is also important to understand more about legislation. This helps the reporter to make more effective requests and also to know how to appeal in case of denials," he said.

Abraji offers an annual free course [in Portuguese] for journalists on access to information. In addition, the organization has made available on its YouTube channel all the videos of the online event series "10 years of LAI: impact, challenges and opportunities," in which invited experts debate the topic.