Saturday, May 18, 2013

Brazil: Less than half of public bodies respect information requests



One year after access to information law 12.527/2011 was adopted, a new study conducted by ARTICLE 19 reveals that only 44% of public bodies respond satisfactorily to information requests from individuals and non-governmental organisations.

"In the first year of the law's operation, only 44% of public bodies provided satisfactory information upon request. Among those replies considered unsatisfactory: 32% received no reply whatsoever, 23% received incomplete answers, and 1% were denied on the basis of grounds that are not regarded as lawful under the law,” said Paula Martins, ARTICLE 19 South America Director.

The quality of the information received was also poor. Of the information requests replied to, 60% of the replies had either no or only partial information included.

The study also shows that most of the cases brought before the judiciary under the new access to information law are requests for publication of public officials' salaries. The authorities have denied the requests arguing that the public officials' rights to privacy and security would be violated by the publication of their salaries. Of the 13 cases dealing with access to information decided by the Supreme Court, 12 related to the publication of salaries received by public officials.

“Almost 60% of the cases that reached as far as the Supreme Court over the past year refer to non-compliance with the new law by lower level magistrates and justice officers, in particular on the publication of salaries. In each and every case that was reviewed, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of transparency and accountability of public officials and ordered the release of the information,” added Martins.

The full survey and study will be released at the event "A year of transparency: uses and misuses of the access to information law" to be held on May 22 in São Paulo, Brazil.

Information Requests

ARTICLE 19 has monitored a total of 141 information requests since the new law entered into effect in 2012. Of this total, 32% received absolutely no response from the public administration (federal, state and municipal levels).

ARTICLE 19 has organised a specific databank that generates a series of empirical data about the access to information situation in Brazil. The system includes among other data:
  • the percentage of requests answered
  • public bodies that are more responsive and less responsive to information requests
  • those that responded more and less satisfactorily
  • types of response
Information requested, presented and monitored covers areas such as environmental issues, education, housing, health, women's rights, access to water, broadcasting pluralism and diversity, as well as on the implementation of the new access to information law.

"Even taking into account that the period for adaptation of public bodies to the new law was short, the results are concerning. Most of the requests refer to human rights issues, data used by civil society groups and the general public for their daily work and decisions," added Martins. "The mere regulation of the right to information does not guarantee that the right will be respected and realised. It is up to civil society to participate in the process."

ARTICLE 19 has also conducted a questionnaire amongst civil society groups to collect data about the successes and challenges in their use of the law during its first year in force. The survey results show that most information requests have been directed to the federal executive at 46% of cases, followed by 38% to municipal authorities, and 15% to state bodies. The common trend in the responses was the high level of dissatisfaction with the answers.

The monitoring conducted by ARTICLE 19 and the experiences of other organisations reveal that Brazil needs a unified and specialised agency to implement and supervise the observance and enforcement of the provisions in the new access to information law; an agency with jurisdiction over all parts of government. The data shows the importance of setting up standards, especially for proactive efforts for transparency, and strengthening internal structures in each body to provide information to the public.

Among the challenges highlighted by civil society, the report criticises the:
  • poor quality of the responses to information requests
  • low progress in terms of proactive transparency
  • constraints caused by the need to identify the author of the information requests
  • difficulties imposed by a complex system of appeals
“We celebrate this first anniversary of the law and the progress that has been observed in the realisation of the right to information in Brazil. Many civil servants and authorities have openly and enthusiastically welcomed the new legislation. The law has also been well received by civil society groups, and NGOs daily make more and more use of the right to information as a tool to move their social agendas and daily work. Unfortunately, however, many challenges remain and we expect that our monitoring efforts will serve to point the way to improvements and reforms to ensure the new law will effectively improve transparency and openness among the Brazilian public bodies,” concluded Martins.