Can a Transparency-shy Brazil Co-chair the Open Government Partnership?
Aug 2, 2011
Caminhada com Dilma movimenta bairro popular em Natal by Isaac Ribeiro.jpeg
Dilma walk in the Square Gentil Ferreira (July 2010)

Dr. Greg Michener, an expert on information access laws in the Latin America region, has done extensive research into the history of Brazil’s access laws. His work and blog, Observing Brazil, provided the foundation for this post.

Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, has not been showing the necessary leadership in passing the Access to Information (41/2010) bill. President Rousseff’s fumbling of driving this bill through Congress does not just have political implications for Brazil, but threatens to delegitimize the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which Brazil is co-chairing with the US. The legitimacy of the OGP’s mission to “secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, [and] fight corruption…” is significantly weakened when a co-chairing country does not fulfill basic transparency that is now the norm in over 85 countries.

May 3, World Press Day, passed without President Rousseff signing off on the bill like she had promised to do during President Obama’s mid-March trip, where she accepted the invitation to co-chair the OGP. The Science and Technology and Human Rights Committees approved the bill on April 19-20, but approval has been stalled in the Foreign Relations and Defense Committee, chaired by former president and key Rousseff ally, Fernando Collor.

José Sarney, Senate president and Rousseff ally stands by Collor’s stalling tactic. Sarney advocated for the opening of secret documents, but maintained that some official documents should remain classified forever. Michener notes Sarney is justifying his adherence to siglio eterno, or “eternal secrecy,” by appealing to national pride, “…all of us have been beating up on our country. Let’s embrace the country and preserve what it has. We won’t open up these wounds from our past, from our history.” This is a unique argument not made in any other transparency debate. To say the least, the argument assumes that there ought to be secrets so tightly locked up that Brazilians (and indeed humanity) should never know the truth of its history.

Senator Walter Pinheiro argued the bill will help Brazil become more transparent and “this is not a bill for witch hunts or to persecute anyone. It is for making information available and allowing society to monitor and scrutinize.” This bill complies with the constitutionally-guaranteed right of access to public information. The Brazilian constitution, of 1988 outlines the publics’ right to information in Article Five, XXXIII: “everyone is entitled to receive public information of particular interest, or general collective general interest, which shall be provided within the law, subject to liability, except those whose secrecy is vital to the security of society and the state.”

President Rousseff responded to Collor’s stalling tactic by issuing an urgency petition; this action would have forced the Access to Information bill out of the committee and put it to a floor vote in the Senate. On 14 June President Rousseff retracted the urgency requirement, not wanting to alienate Sarney or Collor, simultaneously opening the bill to weakening amendments. Michener writes in his blog, Observing Brazil writes, “[t]he reversal represents an apparent effort to maintain the coherence of President Rousseff’s majority coalition in the Senate, placating powerful leaders.”

Members of the President’s Workers Party (PT) began to express their frustration with the president and her inability to pass the bill, noting its importance for the country. On 21 June President Rousseff enacted the “urgency” request again, but gave Senate enough time to make amendments to the bill (Collor has already made 11 changes), which will be voted on in September.

President Rousseff actions need to show she is serious about opening up her government and supporting transparency. Gonzalo Marroquín, President of the InterAmerican Press Association, stressed Brazil “[cannot miss the opportunity to assume responsibility in regard to public access to information, a privilege that belongs to all citizens.” As OGP co-chairs, the United States and Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero, must put pressure on President Rousseff to pass Brazil’s Access to Information bill; refusing to do so threatens the credibility of the OGP and the potential for global progress on open governance.

A (Very) Brief Timeline of Brazil’s FOI Bill Compiled by Greg Michener

2003: Reginaldo Lopes, Deputy of governing PT party introduces legislative FOI proposal.
2003-06: Bill languishes in Congress, as President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) had “little need to bolster his image by waving the transparency banner…”
2009: Civil Society Organizations, ABRAJI and ARTICLE 19 organize international seminar to discuss access rights in Brazil. Lula sends draft FOI bill to Congress.
2010: Chamber of Deputies approves Lula’s FOI bill, bill sent to four Senate commissions for sign-off. Inter-American Court of Human Rights rules in a landmark decision that the Brazilian government needs to publicly accept responsibility for grave human rights violations during the military regime.

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