In 2001, the Mexican daily Milenio printed a story lambasting then-President Vicente Fox for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on furnishing his home.
“Towel Gate” was heralded by some as a moment of transparency, based as it was on official data published on a government website. The story ran as Mr. Fox was pushing for the first ever freedom of information law, which came into effect in 2002, just two years after Mexico ended seven decades of closed one-party rule.
The move made Mexico home to one of the most robust freedom of information systems in the region. And it has since become an increasingly powerful tool for journalists and civil society – witness the past year.
Stories over the past several months have implicated a government minister and the first family in house-buying scandals, and helped shine light on official involvement in tragedies like the disappearance of 43 college students in the state of Guerrero. It’s been used to expose inefficiencies in the state-owned oil company Pemex, and to cover the evolution of drug cartels over the past 40 years, showing how each president’s policies have helped or hindered the cartels' expansion.
Mexico remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, with 35 killed since 1992. Self-censorship is common, due to threats of violence or fear that government funding to media outlets in the form of advertisements might be curtailed, and pay is typically low.
Although high-profile stories like these haven't led to officials resigning or laws changed, there is a growing sense that the public can rely on the veracity of these reports, given the government-released data behind them. And this has helped build confidence in the fourth estate and its watchdog role.
“The [freedom of information] law has been used since the beginning. But the big difference recently is [in] the type of information journalists are seeking and how they have used it,” says Jorge Israel Hernández Herrara, professor of journalism and investigation at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City. “The information that has come out in the past few years has allowed them [reporters] to achieve one of the main points of journalism: holding officials accountable.
“The more journalists use this tool, the more they realize what they have at hand.”
Similar in scope to the United State’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the recently renamed National Institute of Transparency, Access to Information, and Data Protection (INAI) was tasked with overseeing Mexico's 2002 transparency law.
“For more than a decade Mexico has had really a sea change from one of the most secretive countries in the world into a country that has a law that’s in ways even better than FOIA,” says Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin.
An online request system at the federal level has been replicated in many states and independent government institutions. Requests for information at the national level have gone from roughly 37,700 in 2004 to about 144,000 in 2014, growing by about 15 percent per year, according to the INAI website.
Yet many citizens are still unaware of their right to request information, which can have practical purposes, such as searching for land ownership documents if involved in a dispute, says Mr. Hernández. And though the number of users is rising, the diversity of users is lacking: The majority of requests come from the capital, Mexico City, and nearly 75 percent of people asking for information in 2012 had college degrees.
Some say they have a sense that agencies are now figuring out ways to withhold requested information.
“It’s a permanent battle” to access information in Mexico, says Estela Margarita Torres Almanza, a professor at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City who focuses on freedom of information and journalism. She says over the past five years, a lot of local NGOs have led the way in teaching the ins and outs of the public information request systems at the federal and state levels, often collaborating with journalists.
“This isn’t like everyday journalism where you ask a question and someone answers,” says Ms. Torres. “It’s more focused on getting the facts, the documents, the evidence that make a story stand up. There are a lot of people, teams that are starting to form in newsrooms that are focusing on obtaining this information specifically, and wanting to do something different.”
National news coverage is more likely than local to use public information requests in their reporting, she adds.
“Journalists are looking for quick information, and this system can take months,” says Juan Carlos Solis, an independent consultant who helps media outlets and NGOs across Mexico navigate the information request systems. “The time it takes is a turn off.”
Prepare to wait
Mr. Solis, who places between 30 and 50 requests for information from a range of government ministries and institutions each month, says he fails to get the information he’s seeking on his first attempt 90 percent of the time. And he’s a specialist.
A request might languish for 40 days before getting a response. If the answer is “no” or the information is lacking, the requester has 10 days to appeal. It can take another 40 days to get a response to an appeal and in some cases it's necessary to give your name, something that can be intimidating for local journalists who often lack the resources and protection of those reporting nationally.
But there’s definitely interest, says Tania Montalvo, a reporter focused on data and transparency at Animal Politico, a Mexico City-based independent news site. She was in Veracruz earlier this year – a state where more than 11 journalists have been killed since 2010. One day, while driving with a few local reporters, someone pointed out a bridge that had stood unfinished for almost a decade.
When Ms. Montalvo got back to Mexico City, she put in a request for information and found that despite the fact that the bridge was nearly completed in the first two years of construction, the project had continued to receive 154 million pesos (almost $9 million) in government funding since 2010, with no recorded advances in building.
She published the story on Animal Politico last month and the journalists in Veracruz reached out in surprise.
“How did you find that information? How did you do that?” she says they asked. She tried to explain the request process by phone and by sending screen shots via e-mail. Now, she says, they’ve begged her to come back and teach them.