Transparency laws present professional, institutional challenges in Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua

By Alejandro Martínez

After decades of a culture of virtually impenetrable secrecy within the Mexican government, in 2002 Mexico passed the Federal Access to Information and Personal Data Protection Act. Since then, it has become an often-cited model of how other governments should draft their own transparency laws.

However, during the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas11th Austin Forum, which focused on the topics of transparency and accountability, Mexican journalist and Ibero American University professor Margarita Torres said the law is not perfect and journalists are not using it as much as they could.

In a session about transparency in Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua, panelists discussed the inroads and remaining challenges in the implementation of public information laws in these countries.

Even though some journalists have become experts in using the law and developed important public interest stories using it, Torres said those cases are still few and far between. Many reporters in Mexico still suffer from “declaracionitis,” or the dependence on statements to write stories. In the end, such stories are often limited to just reflecting what government officials said, offering little contrast and lacking analysis, Torres said.

More regular and efficient usage of the country’s transparency laws can help fix the issue, she said.

“This information can help us understand what has been happening in Mexico in the last several years,” she said.

And despite recent changes to fine-tune the law – a reform that was approved earlier this year will now require unions and nonprofits that receive public funds to comply with public information requests – another enduring hurdle is that the legal framework for transparency in Mexico is not homogeneous. All federal institutions must comply with the law but each one of the country's 32 states has its own version of the law as well, making implementation unequal across the country.

For Torres, it is necessary for journalists to improve their knowledge of governmental structures and how to make effective public information requests.

Journalists Alejandra Gutiérrez Valdizan, with Guatemalan independent news site Plaza Pública, also spoke of her country’s access to public information law, which was approved in 2008.

Gutiérrez described the passage of the law as a positive development that promotes as much transparency as possible among government institutions. However, Gutiérrez said the law did not impose any sanctions for not complying with requests or create a regulatory agency that responds to issues regarding the law’s implementation.

Gutiérrez said the passage of the law does not mean the country has transcended its culture of opacity, which is more severe at the local level.

Recently Plaza Pública requested data from 75 government institutions like the names of people working there, their salaries and their resumes. From the request Plaza Pública found each institution works its own way, with no centralization or standard method to organize their information. What’s more,

Plaza Pública concluded that the most opaque organizations were the ones related to the private sector, like energy and mining. In a country where the private sector has gone largely unchecked for several years, Gutiérrez said it is important to find out what taxes they are paying and which political campaigns they are sponsoring.

Finally, Leonor Zuñiga with Center for Investigations on Communication, spoke of access to public information in Nicaragua during the administration of President Daniel Ortega.

While the country gave an important step toward public information access when the country approved a public information law in 2007 and the government modernized its websites, Zuñiga said it is very difficult to find important information about the govenrment’s activities.

Zuñiga described the law as short and simple, and mostly explains how to request for information from public institutions. However, like in Guatemala, the law does not establish fines when government officials do not comply.

In general, Zuñiga said, it is difficult to obtain information from the government, even at the most basic level.

For instance, Ortega didn’t give a single press conference between 2007 and 2012, and the media is prohibited from asking questions at the vast majority of public events.

The country’s central communication department recently implemented a new policy of “uncontaminated information,” which aims to deliver the state’s messages to the population with as few media filters as possible. A part of it, the government has increased its purchase of media outlets. All of the TV channels in VHF except one belong to the Ortega family or a Mexican businessman who is friendly with the government, Zuñiga said.

The panelists concluded by emphasizing the importance of developing collaborations between journalists and organizations to continue pressuring their governments and promote the use of transparency laws.

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.