Public officials in Paraguay have found themselves under unprecedented scrutiny recently thanks to a new access to information law that came into effect in September.
After it was revealed that the National University of Asunción was paying professorial salaries to a secretary and her family members, students organized massive protests leading to the dismissal of top-ranking officials there. Similar scandals are being uncovered in various public agencies, where many people had been receiving pay for work they never performed.
The momentum for transparency in government has been building for more than a decade in this country, which consistently ranks among the most corrupt in the world. In 2006, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights held that access to information is a fundamental component of the right to freedom of expression. In 2013, the Paraguayan Supreme Court issued a similar ruling. And that same year, after legislators voted against impeaching a congressman accused of using public funds to pay his nanny, angry citizens protested by banning their representatives from private businesses, including restaurants and hair salons.
The Access to Public Information Law, first passed in 2014, is the result of persistent efforts by national civil society organizations with the support of the Regional Alliance for Free Expression and Information (Alianza Regional por la Libre Expresión e Información), Latin America’s leading coalition of freedom of expression and information groups. The Institute of Law and Environmental Economy (Instituto de Derecho y Economía Ambiental), a Paraguayan organization that supports sustainable development and human rights, is a member of the Regional Alliance and worked closely with the Paraguayan government to implement the law.
Using the One-Stop Access to Public Information Portal (Portal Unificado de Acceso a la Información Pública) created under the law, Paraguayans can search for information about their government, including updated lists of public officials with detailed descriptions of salaries and responsibilities. More than 600 requests have been made via the portal, and refusals to provide information have been successfully appealed in court. Indictments and pretrial detention orders based on newly discovered corruption are pending.
But access to information doesn’t just uncover corruption. It also has the potential to improve people’s quality of life. The Information Portal makes it possible to publish a substantial volume of data that individuals may find useful, including instantly updated lists of medications provided by state institutions, the availability of intensive care beds, and the rankings and building conditions of schools.
The challenge that lies ahead will be to strengthen the governmental institutions that take responsibility for guaranteeing access to information. Currently, a department within the Ministry of Justice performs this task, with huge doses of mysticism but with little resources. That is unstainable in the long term. Sufficient investment will be needed to keep the Information Portal—and the institutions that are behind it—running.
Nevertheless, all signs point toward the law’s continued success. Many candidates in the recent municipal elections made transparency pledges during their campaigns, and the theme featured prominently in President Horacio Cartes’s final address of 2015. In her inaugural speech in February, the country’s new Chief Justice Alicia Pucheta—who will no doubt issue rulings in cases dealing with the law—noted the responsibility of the entire justice system to “uphold the mandates of transparency in our lives.”
Such public commitments are a good thing, and necessary, too. Paraguayans are not likely to give up a right they have embraced so enthusiastically.