Access to information is essential in developing accountability in states (published on April 26th, 2017, in "Red de Expertos" of "Planeta Futuro, "El País")
On 7 November 2013, Salvadoran citizen Domitila Rosario Piche requested a certified copy of the act of the El Salvadoran Peace Accords, which in 1992 brought the country’s devastating civil war to a close. The Access to Public Information Unit of the Office of the Presidency of the Republic denied the request, alleging that the document did not exist in its archives. So Domitila appealed to the Access to Public Information Institute (IAIP), the body responsible for safeguarding this citizen right in the Central American country.
During the hearing, Domitila produced a newspaper clipping with a photograph as sign that the country’s president at the time the accords were signed, Alfredo Cristiani, might be in possession of the original document. Based on this evidence, the IAIP asked the former head of state to hand over the document within 20 days.
Shortly thereafter, in a solemn and very symbolic act, Cristiani presented the Peace Accords document to the current president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén. Domitila received a copy, and the document was catalogued in the General Archive of the Nation.
Public documents at the disposition of citizens
This initiative by a person concerned about transparency, social cohesion and the historic memory of her country sent a clear message: public documents belong to citizens and must always be available to them.
But these situations do not always have a happy ending. In many of our realities, a culture of opacity still predominates: information on the salaries of civil servants is not provided; public tender documents are hidden; patient hospital records disappear; funding sources of political parties for election campaigns are not known; information on human rights violations is denied; or the public does not receive accurate information about the execution of public works.
For this reason, promotion of transparency and access to public information has become a global issue. It occupies a central place on the development agenda as a tool for state accountability, citizen participation and the taking of decisions based on public policies. Accordingly, it is reflected in the new Sustainable Development Goals and the United Nations Convention against Corruption, as well as in the commitments of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), launched by former U.S. president Barack Obama in 2011, which currently includes 75 countries.
Latin America is precisely one of the regions of the world where these initiatives have proliferated the most. Except for Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba and Venezuela, all countries have specific access to information regulations, the majority are members of the OGP, and there is a model law within the framework of the Organization of American States (OAS). Additionally, the organisations responsible for guaranteeing and promoting the right to information in the region have taken a step forward by forming the Transparency and Access to Public Information Network (RTA), and several of them are international references on the subject.
We at EUROsociAL+, the European Union programme for social cohesion in Latin America, have joined them in facing the challenge of transparency through the RTA, a privileged space for the construction of states with greater openness. In continuation of the previous phase of the programme, we are promoting this right through peer-to-peer experience exchanges between the two regions.
Nonetheless, despite the progress, the benefits of transparency are still not living up to the expectations generated among citizens alarmed by cases of corruption and dissatisfied with the quality of public services in Latin America. Therefore, to avoid allowing transparency laws to be undermined, it is necessary to construct a new relationship between the state and citizens based on trust and reciprocity. It is precisely in this new paradigm free of barriers that transparency and free access to documents of public interest play a fundamental role.
With that objective, the organisations that guarantee access to information must be autonomous, with the authority to sanction civil servants who fail to comply, and capable of verifying that state institutions publish the data required by law on their websites.
But it’s not enough to just release information; the information must be presented in clear and easily accessible language, making use of the opportunities provided by new technologies. And, moreover, the state must be proactive and focus on the information most demanded by society, especially by the most vulnerable groups.
In addition to the executive branch, the list of entities subject to transparency laws must also include the legislative and judicial branches, political parties, municipalities and other figures that receive public resources. As recommended by the OECD, there needs to be a transition from an ‘open government’ to an ‘open state’.
Likewise, to guarantee the effectiveness of the right to information, the employees of the information units of public institutions must be trained, and its exercise must be simplified and balanced with the right to protection of personal data. The regime of exceptions to the law (allowing institutions to withhold certain information) must be reasonable and not serve to protect opacity.
To articulate all of these processes, modern archive management policies are needed that facilitate decision-making as regards the conservation and availability of documents.
And most importantly, it is essential to transform the culture of citizenship in relation to this right, which is still mostly unknown and little used – often out of fear of reprisal – and seen as something far removed from daily concerns. It is essential, therefore, to raise the awareness of citizens so that they appreciate the usefulness of access to public information as a guarantee of democracy.
Moreover, for these changes to be sustainable and deep, as stressed by the president of Spain’s Transparency and Good Governance Council, Esther Arizmendi, ‘it is necessary to educate people from a young age as part of the formal school curriculum’. We must train champions of transparency so that cases like that of Domitila stop being the result of just one person’s efforts and become habitual and internalised by society.
Por Borja Díaz, técnico senior de Gobernanza Democrática / Senior Officer of Democratic Governance. EUROsociAL+.