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MEXICO: Freedom of Information Laws a Model; Not So the Practice

Daniela Pastrana

MEXICO CITY, Sep 28 2010 (IPS) - Mexico has suffered a setback in terms of government transparency and access to public information, according to Thomas Blanton and Kate Doyle, experts with the Washington-based National Security Archive (NSA).

In an interview with IPS, Blanton said that while Mexico’s system of access to information is institutionally strong, and even serves as a model worldwide, government officials routinely ignore Federal Institute for Access to Public Information (IFAI) decisions, with no consequences.

It is incredible “that the attorney general, who should be the first person to abide by the law, chooses to disregard the IFAI’s decisions,” said Blanton, director of the NSA, an organisation at George Washington University that collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

He predicted that the next battles over access to public information in Mexico would play out in the Supreme Court.

“The culture of secrecy lives on, which is a worldwide problem, but in Mexico it is more difficult because of the levels of corruption. The IFAI cannot punish unless people go to court,” Blanton said.

Doyle, head of the NSA’s Mexico Project, said restrictions on access to information from public entities have been stiffened in the second administration of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), under President Felipe Calderon, who took office in late 2006.

“This is a difficult time now in Mexico with regard to access to information, because they have realised (in the government) that these laws are causing problems, and they don’t like it,” said Doyle.

The NSA analysts are in Mexico to take part in a week of activities launched by México Infórmate, a civil society initiative that promotes the application of laws safeguarding access to information, to enable citizens to keep the government under scrutiny and monitor the use of public resources and the way the authorities make decisions that affect society as a whole.

The week of events, which started Monday, will involve at least 75 activities in different states.

In 2002, the government of then president Vicente Fox (2000-2006) of the PAN passed the Federal Law of Transparency and Access to Public Government Information, which gave rise a year later to the creation of the IFAI and a system of requests for information that covers more than 200 federal offices.

The 2007 amendment required to elevate the right to public information to the level of the constitution and this year’s passage of the Federal Law for the Protection of Personal Data Held by Private Parties, which expanded the IFAI’s authority and responsibilities, crowned the set of laws that make Mexico’s system a model in the world.

The problem, the NSA analysts said, lies in the implementation of the laws.

Doyle said that at the start of Fox’s six-year term, the level of compliance with requests for public information and the level of satisfaction among those filing the requests were quite high, partly because the requests were very basic.

“In our view, these requests have now become more complex. In our experience, in the first months and years (of the current administration), we have had more problems (in terms of requests for information) on our issues,” said Doyle, an expert on the archives from Mexico’s “dirty war” against guerrillas and the forced disappearance of left-wing activists and other dissidents in the late 1960s and the 1970s.

“The instruments of access to information are slow-moving and frustrating, but they will only be improved through use, and the public must demand that governments live up to their obligations,” she said.

From the establishment of the IFAI in June 2003 to December 2009, the executive branch received more than 489,000 requests for information, according to the institute’s seventh annual report, issued in August.

The report states that the number of requests received by federal offices in 2009 was 12 percent higher than in 2008, more than half of the people filing the requests were between the ages of 20 and 39, and 97 percent of all requests were filed on-line.

The Federal District and surrounding areas — in other words, greater Mexico City — accounted for 57 percent of the requests, and, as in previous years, the Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS) was the institution that received the greatest number of requests, followed by the education ministry and the ministry of finance and public credit.

Blanton said Mexico has a level of demand for information that took over 10 years to reach in the United States, and that it has also established the highest standard for access to information in the world. “In the United States we have never had an IFAI!” he said emphatically.

But he added that with today’s new technologies, all governments will have to end up moving in that direction.

People in Mexico will have to undergo a change in mentality with regard to the question of government transparency, and not see the government as a monolithic block, but as a web of different agencies and offices.

Above all, he said, they have to understand that the fight for government transparency is a long but necessary process, and that the best way to make sure the laws are implemented and enforced is by actually using the system of access to information.

“In Mexico there are hundreds of stories and we are not telling them. We don’t show the direct consequences nor the impact of access to information, or how lives can be protected if one has the necessary information.

“It will take perhaps another 20 years to get all the drug dealer dossiers. Maybe another 20 years until we fully know what the police did in Guerrero (a reference to a 1998 massacre by the military of a dozen indigenous people in the community of El Charco). It’s a very long struggle. But it has to be done,” Blanton said.

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