How Open Society Grantees Are Advancing Access to Public Information in Latin America

Since the landmark legal decision Marcel Claude Reyes and Others v. Chile of the Inter-American Human Rights Court in 2006, the right to access public information has increasingly been recognized by Latin America’s governments as a human right.  Fourteen of the region’s nineteen countries have access to public information laws, more than any other developing region in the world.  Most of these have been passed in the past decade with the support of the Open Society Foundations' Latin America Program and partner civil society organizations.

In 2010 the Organization of American States (OAS) Department of International Law, with the support of the Latin America Program and civil society experts from across the region, developed a model access to information law and implementation guide for use by regional governments.   During 2011, the model law and implementation guide were used by parliamentarians as standards for drafting bills in Venezuela, Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil and as a basis for discussion of the implementation of legislation in El Salvador and Peru.

In the following clip, Juan Pablo Guerrero, one of the founding commissioners of the Federal Institute of Access to Information in Mexico, discusses what is required for a law to be effective and well-implemented.

In Peru, the 2003 Transparency and Access to Public Information law has been a valuable tool for transparency advocates.  However, several factors have diminished its potential, including the absence of an independent institution with authority to sanction non-compliance, as well as ill-trained and overburdened civil servants, and constant bureaucratic resistance.  In September 2011, the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad joined Peru’s Human Rights Ombudsman in calling for the government to create an autonomous institute in line with the OAS model law and implementation guide at the Open Society–sponsored IV National Conference on Access to Information.

In El Salvador, a multi-sectoral group, Grupo Promotor, promoted a law with the support of an Open Society–sponsored network, the Regional Alliance for Freedom of Expression and Information,  as well as transparency champions within the current administration.   It was successfully passed in March of 2011.

Similarly, Open Society partner Articulo 19 in Brazil participated in building citizen demand for legislation which, due to public support, was signed into law last November.  The Latin America Program believes that if El Salvador and Brazil are able to regulate and implement their laws effectively, they could serve as important examples to other countries in the region and worldwide.

In Venezuela, one of the few countries in the region without specific legislation to protect the right to public information, legislators (with the support of a civil society coalition, Coalicion ProAcceso) presented a draft law in mid 2011.  Though the federal bill continues to be stalled in congress, Open Society–supported a campaign where citizens in several state and municipal governments signed petitions to create ordinances and policies to protect citizens’ right to information in their localities.

Other significant developments include the participation of Open Society grantees in two important InterAmerican Human Rights Commission hearings during October 2011: “Access to Public Information in Latin America” and “Access to Public Information in Venezuela.” Both hearings highlighted research and advocacy efforts financed by the Foundations.

In addition to advances in the region, we've also observed push-back against transparency and accountability reforms.  In 2010-2011, the Open Society Foundations funded the study Venciendo la Cultura del Secreto on the obstacles to policies and regulations for access to public information and increased transparency in seven Latin American countries.  The study found that governments have strong incentives to maintain the culture of secrecy and that there are a number of shared obstacles that impede the process of requesting public information, publishing information proactively, resolving disputes for noncompliance to transparency laws and regulations, acquiring information related to the judiciary, and stimulating citizen participation.  Issues such as protection of personal data, security concerns, and a desire to keep past and present human rights abuses hidden have also affected the transparency and accountability agenda.

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Great overview of the current situation, and how the region acted to advance the access to information agenda.The strategic function of coalitions to push for laws is a rich topic for this and other advocacy actions.
The issue of creating, promoting and organizing the demand of information is another relevant topic, also underlined by Guerrero. What are the main tools that the CSOs count with in order to mobilize citizenry towards using the access to information as a democratization strategy?

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