Transparency grows in Brazil but stalls in Argentina, Austin Forum panelists say

Journalists in Argentina are calling for a law that grants them true access to public information and ensures that state agencies comply with information requests, said Juan Carlos Simo, a member of the Argentine Journalist’s Forum (FOPEA), who spoke about transparency in his country during the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas’ 11th Austin Forum, which took place Nov. 8-9 at the University of Texas at Austin.

Although a transparency law does not exist in the country, Argentina has a decree that describes access to public information as a “prerequisite” to civic participation. However, the journalists that actually invoke the Decree of Public Information Access No.1172/03, signed in 2003 by then President Néstor Kirchner, are few and far between. Simo explains that journalists rarely cite the decree because it has proven to be an ineffective tool for getting information.

Simo said that applications often receive no response or incomplete information, or they are simply denied by claiming that the requested information is personal in nature (personal information is one of the exceptions the decree allows).

The constitution recognizes access to public information by citing the Pact of San José, Costa Rica, and the 16 provinces in the country have special rules to guarantee access to information, but these regulations do not always work.

Simo pointed out that in 2012, Argentina’s Civil Rights Association (ADC) and the Civil Society for Equality and Justice (ACIJ) conducted a study on the effectiveness of the presidential decree on public information access. Out of 93 requests for information sent to various public agencies, over half of the requests received no reply, an incomplete response, or were outside the ten-day window to receive a response that the decree mandates, all without any justification.

The journalist also explained the lack of political will to promote a culture of active transparency citing as an example statements made by President Cristina Fernández during the only press conferences of her administration, which she gave in 2012 at Harvard and Georgetown universities in the U.S. In these conferences Fernández said: “I have to govern, it’s not a presidential obligation to give press conferences every day. That’s what my spokesmen are for.”

FOPEA has launched various campaigns to promote the right to free information and expression. The most recent one was a social networking campaign, #infoendemocracia, which was launched in the middle of the legislative elections this year in Argentina. This campaign sought the commitment of incoming lawmakers to fight for greater transparency in government decision-making.

Simo also mentioned the comments about the presidential transparency decree made by Ramiro Álvarez Ugarte, director of Information Access for the ADC, who said that “any regulation that is inferior to a law that creates a mechanism for independent and autonomous application is not sufficient to break down the culture of secrecy that impairs state structures.”

The Austin Forum also discussed Brazil’s young transparency law.

Since its founding in 2002, the Association of Brazilian Investigative Journalists (ABRAJI in Portuguese) had campaigned, with other organizations like the Knight Center, to create a law that permits free access to information for all Brazilians. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff finally signed a law on May 16, 2012.

Brazilian journalist Fernando Rodrigues, member of ABRAJI, pointed out that the law’s wide reach applies to federal, state, and city governments and includes the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government. It also covers all public companies. Rodrigues reported that 80 percent of all public documents requested in the first year and a half after the law’s enactment have received a positive reply.

The journalist showed that the three most important media outlets, O Globo, Estadão, and Folha de São Paulo, have used the law vigorously and cited as an example the O Globo report about the effects of Bolsa Familia ten years after the social welfare program was enacted. According to the report, half a million beneficiaries of the program Bolsa Familia are now second-generation recipients and continue living in poverty.

The story was put together after O Globo filed a public information request and obtained the program’s enrollment lists from the Ministry of Social Development and the Struggle Against Hunger 98 days later.

In the first 18 months since the law was enacted, there have been 802 stories in 68 national news outlets that were based on data obtained through Brazil’s public information access law, Rodrigues noted. Rodrigues said the most requested topics were political in nature.

Nevertheless, Rodrigues said the law has some weaknesses, which stemmed from a lack of political will to enforce the legislation. Compliance is even more precarious in the public agencies of less developed cities, he said, adding that there is neither an independent organization that makes sure the law is obeyed nor a national campaign to encourage the general public to use it.

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.