Why isn’t the Brazilian press covering the freedom of information law? (Analysis)

By Greg Michener

Despite a growing need for transparency and access to information in the public sector, Brazil remains one of the few Latin American countries that still has not approved a freedom of information (FOI) law. The relatively weak news media coverage of a freedom of information law in Brazil is one of the key factors that can explain why proposals have been floating around Congress since 2003 without finding closure and, consequently, why citizens still have no right to access information. While an information access bill was introduced in Congress in May 2009, it still is awaiting approval in the Senate.

Although the media has provided considerable space for other measures related to governmental accountability, such as the Clean Docket law (Ficha Limpa), the press has paid little attention to what is widely believed to be the most important measure in promoting governmental transparency. Professional media associations in Brazil officially support a freedom of information law, but commitments have translated into little actual coverage. It is not that the press need launch a campaign or explicitly advocate for a law, but it ought to at least provide space to discuss a law manifestly in the public’s interest. Freedom of information laws contain relevance for issues related to corruption and human, civic and media rights, as well as the distribution and efficiency of government spending.

The media’s importance in driving the adoption of strong freedom of information laws finds evidence in a 2010 dissertation I completed on the diffusion of these institutional mechanisms across Latin America. My study, which analyzed eleven laws and one decree in Latin America, strongly suggests that the degree of media coverage influences the electoral timing and legal strength of freedom of information laws.

In Brazil, I conducted a content analysis that examined eleven months of coverage, from the FOI bill’s entry into Congress in May 2009 (the bill was presented by the Executive Branch) until it was enacted by the Chamber of Deputies in April 2010. During that time, the Folha de São Paulo newspaper published an average of 4.2 news items per month that mentioned access to information as a citizen right or a legal measure. However, only 1.5 news items per month directly addressed the issue of a prospective freedom of information law. Most of these news items were penned by one author, Fernando Rodrigues. A general survey of other leading Brazilian newspapers tells a similar story.

By contrast, during the 2001-02 Mexican campaign for a law, the newspapers El Universal and Reforma both published an average of 12 news items per month directly on the issue of a freedom of information law. Enacted in May 2002, the Mexican law has since become an international standard in disclosure legislation. The media has played no small part in this accomplishment.

Relative silence among the Brazilian news media is surprising, particularly given recent evidence linking flagrant nepotism and bribery to the Chief of State’s Office (Casa Civil). In other countries, such as Chile, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, corruption scandals were the events that triggered strong media campaigns for greater disclosure through freedom of information laws.

Weak media coverage also is disturbing given long-uttered promises for greater transparency and a freedom of information law. In 2003, the motto of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT or Worker’s party) was participation, prioritizing the poor, and transparency. Yet mechanisms to promote transparency have not been forthcoming.

A proposal introduced in Congress during Lula’s first year in office by a PT deputy was ignored. A subsequent campaign promise to pass a freedom of information law only came to a head in 2009, following an International Seminar for Access to Public Information organized by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI), Article 19, and the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. The government finally introduced a bill in Congress in May 2009 and, despite delays, it was passed in April 2010. At present the bill awaits approval in the Senate.

There are now more than 80 nations and five billion people who benefit from the right to know. Latin America is a regional trend-setter in the adoption of FOI laws, having enacted 11 comprehensive laws -- 10 of them since 2002. Colombia (1985), Chile (2008), the Dominican Republic (2004), Ecuador (2004), Guatemala (2008), Honduras (2006), Mexico (2002), Nicaragua (2007), Panama (2002), Peru (2002), and Uruguay (2008) passed laws and Argentina and Bolivia both have presidential decrees providing the right to information. Three countries, Argentina, Brazil, and El Salvador, currently are considering comprehensive legislation.

Will civil society and the media in Brazil begin to generate enough pressure within the presidency and the Senate to guarantee expeditious enactment of the half-sanctioned bill? The hope is that Brazil does not have to depend solely on the good will of its newly elected representatives to secure an adequate access to public information law.

Greg Michener, a Canadian citizen and Brazilian permanent resident, recently completed a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Texas at Austin. His dissertation focused on the adoption of access to public information laws across Latin America. A more extensive analysis of the trajectory of Brazil’s law is available at the author’s website, in chapter four (starting on page 43 of the PDF). The analysis of the Brazilian law was limited to the bill that originally entered Congress in 2009.

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.