Freedom of information law turns 2 years old, amid criticism
Government indiscriminately blocks security and foreign policy data, says Conectas
Brazil’s federal and state governments have blocked information on public security and foreign policy, disregarding the spirit of Law No. 12,527/2011, better known as the Freedom of Information Law, which was two years old on Friday, May 16.
Conectas has filed freedom of information requests 29 times during the first two years of the law, which was created to lend more transparency to the management of public affairs by all levels of government. However, it has come up against “a wall of obscurity in areas considered sensitive, which has been somewhat exaggerated,” said Juana Kweitel, associate director of the organization.
In the most recent case, the federal government has repeatedly refused to provide information on the management of R$1 million in public money in the so-called IBSA Fund formed to “alleviate poverty” in the block’s member countries – Brazil, India and South Africa. Conectas requested information on the impact of the actions taken by the fund and financial details of the costs of each project. The Office of the Inspectorate-General (CGU), in a 17-page report, recommended that the requested information be released, but the CGU’s ombudsman, José Eduardo Romão, denied access. As a result of the repeated denials, at all levels, Conectas is now planning to take the case to court in the next few days. (Read the article in the O Globo newspaper on the topic, by Thiago Herdy).
A similar difficulty was encountered when requesting information from the São Paulo State Public Security Department on one of the most violent police operations against demonstrators, on June 13, 2013, in downtown São Paulo. Conectas wanted to know who was responsible for the order to disperse the peaceful demonstration, how much ammunition was used and what steps have been taken to hold to account the police officers who blatantly committed abuses. The request also included another seven objective questions. On September 2, the government responded, stating that the requested information is secret. Conectas, observing the provisions of the law, has appealed to the department. (Read the full case)
Conectas has catalogued all these experiences and discovered that 25.9% of all the requests that were filed and completed by May 2014 remain unanswered. In 7.4% of the cases, the information was denied.
‘Obscurity is the rule’
“The more irrelevant the topic, the more transparent the posture of the government. Hence the very positive overall number of requests it claims to have processed. However, every time we requested truly important data, it was denied,” said Kweitel. “A culture has built up that relevant topics are secret and the population should not get involved in matters of security and foreign policy. We need to change this culture. The law alone won’t do this.”
The problem gets worse when the organization appeals to higher channels. Conectas has appealed to the next level on 13 occasions – 8 cases have gone unanswered and in 2 the requested information was denied.
The Mixed Commission, created to analyze cases in which requests are denied, is formed exclusively by members of government, which compromises its decisions. Moreover, there is no publicly available information on when the appeals are judged, much less any reports on the criteria used in the decisions.
“The people who ought to be overseeing the transparency are not transparent themselves,” said Rafael Custódio, coordinator of the Justice Program at Conectas. “Not even the time limits established by the law are respected. The responses come long after the legal deadlines. And this occurs in São Paulo, even at the Internal Affairs Office, which should, in theory, ensure the correct functioning of the law.”
Custódio also thinks there should be a public database where everyone in society can see the requests filed, the responses, the denials and the reasons why.
When the law works
In some cases, however, the Freedom of Information Law has proven to be an essential tool for pressuring the government to review policies that violate human rights.
The most exemplary case involves the abusive searches of people who visit their relatives in prison. The alleged reason for the searches is to prevent drugs, weapons and mobile phone chips from getting into the country’s prisons. The “search” requires people to strip naked, squat three times over a mirror, contract their muscles and open their anus and vagina with their fingers so employees of the State can perform the search.
From data collected using the Freedom of Information Law, however, the Criminal Justice Network, of which Conectas is part, discovered that this justification is groundless. Official documents supplied by the São Paulo State Prison Administration Department itself revealed that only 0.03% of visitors were carrying contraband, i.e. 2 out of every 10,000 visitors. There were no cases of attempts to smuggle in weapons. The research used data gathered by the government in the months of February, March and April in the years 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. Meanwhile, the seizure of illegal items from inside the cells was four times higher than the amount seized from visitors, which proves that the contraband enters the prisons through other means, other than visiting relatives. (Find out about the campaign to stop abusive searches).
A debate organized today by Article 19 in partnership with Conectas, Transparency Brazil and the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the Freedom of Information Law in Brazil. The event “Challenges of transparency” was held at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) Law School (Rua Rocha, 233) at 10 AM on May 16.
The panel at the seminar was formed by Paula Martins of Article 19, Marina Atoji of Abraji, Natália Paiva of Transparency Brazil, Juana Kweitel of Conectas and Marta Machado of the FGV. Registration is not necessary.