Article 51 of Venezuela's 1999 constitution is clear: every person has the right to petition government authorities for information and receive "an opportune and adequate response." Those who violate this right, the article states, will face sanctions, including removal from office.
However, Venezuelans' right to public information is honored mostly in name. Of 157 information requests submitted during February and March 2008 to 50 state institutions, 71 percent were denied. Still, this was a slight improvement over 2007, when a similar investigation found that 87 percent of all petitions were rejected.
These results come from a study by Espacio Público, one of five associations that have joined forces to coordinate a civil society movement called the Coalición ProAcceso to strengthen the Venezuelan public's understanding of their constitutional right to access information from their government. OSI supports the work of Coalición ProAcceso through a grant to Transparency International.
The message to Venezuelan citizens is simple, writes Mercedes De Freitas, director of Transparencia Venezuela, in a toolkit prepared for citizen activists: "Don't let them take you for a ride. Make your right to information count."
It is a campaign that has become especially important as the Venezuelan government continues to restrict the traditional news media, closing dozens of radio stations during 2009 for supposedly breaching administrative regulations. With fewer news outlets available to spread the message, coalition members are using social media and websites to publish research, stimulate public support, and encourage candidates in the 2010 elections to pledge their commitment to open government.
Despite problems at the national level, there are signs of progress locally. The work of ProAcceso was critical to the passage of freedom of information ordinances and regulations in five municipalities during 2008-2009. Three of Venezuela's 24 state governments have passed freedom of information laws and three more are discussing laws to provide the public with greater access.
In an assessment of anti-corruption efforts during 2009, De Freitas points out that many local institutions—which have made great strides toward transparency in budgets, contracts, and procedures—could instruct Venezuela's national government on best practices to combat inefficiency and graft.