Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Press Freedom

ARGENTINA: Very Little Freedom of Information

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 28 2006 (IPS) - The decree that protects freedom of information in Argentina is weak, limited and ineffectively enforced, say civic organisations in Argentina that monitor the state’s compliance with the right to public information.

After five years of debate in both houses of Congress, a freedom of information bill that emerged as a broad consensus among civil society organisations but underwent major modifications lapsed last February.

The only measure currently protecting the right to access to public information in this South American country is a 2003 presidential decree that only covers information produced by the national government. It does not extend to Congress, the judiciary, or the public prosecutor’s office, as the failed bill would have done.

“Unfortunately, the decree is the only thing there is,” said lawyer Mariela Bielski, in charge of freedom of information matters in Argentina’s Association for Civil Rights.

The decree “has a limited reach and is vulnerable because a future government could revoke it more easily than if it were a law,” she added in an interview with IPS held on the occasion of the International Right to Know Day, commemorated on Sep. 28 since 2002.

Bielski believes the political will is currently lacking to make progress towards far-reaching legislation that would effectively guarantee the right to public information. “Several bills have been introduced, but basically the legislators in Congress are the same ones who let this draft law, which was the result of a consensus with civil society, collapse,” she said.

According to freedom of information organisations, only 66 countries around the world have freedom of information laws that include the minimum requirements to make them effective.

The laws, for example, must include no requirement for the person requesting information to give an explanation for their request, and must provide for penalties for public bodies that unjustifiably refuse a freedom of information request.

“Of the 66 countries with laws that include these basic requisites, only five are in the Americas” – the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama and Peru, said Bielski.

Other countries in the region have decrees or statutes, but not specific “sunshine laws”, she added.

“The presidents meet in the Organisation of American States (OAS) summits and sign commitments on this issue, which they do not live up to,” said the activist.

The Inter-American Court on Human Rights is currently considering a case on freedom of information that “is key to setting a legal precedent on this right in the entire region,” said Bielski.

The case was brought by Marcel Claude Reyes (currently the international conservation organisation Oceana’s vice president for South America) and others against the governmental Committee on Foreign Investment in Chile.

Claude Reyes, who at the time was executive director of a Chilean environmental NGO, the Terram Foundation, asked the Committee in 1998 for information on a logging project being undertaken by a U.S. company, Trillium, on 250,000 hectares of old-growth lenga (southern beech or Nothofagus pumilio) forest in southern Chile.

But the state did not release the information.

In the end, the company pulled out of the logging project, but the case was studied in-depth by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and referred to the Inter-American Court, which must now hand down a verdict.

“If the ruling is favourable, the legal precedent could be invoked in any country in the region,” said Bielski.

To monitor how well the decree on freedom of information works, the Association for Civil Rights and other civic groups file several freedom of information requests every day.

“There is goodwill on the part of the officials who receive the requests, but what we have noted is that we receive only incomplete responses – that they respond to some aspects of our questions but ignore other key aspects, forcing us to repeat the request,” said Bielski.

For example, in response to a request on how many women prisoners test positive for HIV, the AIDS virus, the officials only provide the statistics on the total female prison population.

And with respect to the 10-working day deadline set by the decree for public bodies to provide a response, Bielski said the executive branch routinely asks for extensions.

The poor functioning of the system is one of the explanations for the scant number of freedom of information requests, she said. “Nearly all of the requests are filed by investigative reporters or civic groups like ours, and there are practically no requests filed by ordinary citizens,” said the activist.

If the request does not receive a timely response, the petitioner can take legal action. But the freedom of information associations do not want petitioners to have to turn to the courts to have their requests fulfilled.

The situation is no better at the municipal and provincial levels. Only 10 of Argentina’s 23 provinces, and just 10 municipalities, have freedom of information statutes. However, they do not always succeed in protecting the right of access to public information.

“The city of Buenos Aires has a sunshine law, but it frequently fails to respond to requests, and when it does, it does so in an incomplete manner,” Carolina del Campo, of the Civil Association for Equality and Justice, told IPS.

With respect to the national government, del Campo said “there are good and bad responses.”

“We file requests on a daily basis, and for example, the ministries of labour and health generally respond in due time and form, but we had to send the office of the cabinet chief a warning,” she said. “After receiving no response to three requests, I sent a warning, and much later they responded to something other than what we had asked.”

(The office of the cabinet chief coordinates the work of all of the ministries, and serve as the link to Congress).

“It would be much better to have a law that also covered Congress,” said the activist, who added that the system would function much more smoothly and that a culture of public transparency and participation would be fomented.

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