Brazil's freedom of information law under threat

President Dilma Rousseff has not been shy about sacking ministers accused of corruption, but with no freedom of information law, progress will be limited.

Brazil’s long-awaited freedom of information law is once again under threat.

Senator and disgraced ex-President Fernando Collor, who was impeached in 1992 by the very Senate he now serves, has proposed radical revisions to the freedom of information bill 41/2010.

These changes constitute a clear affront to President Dilma Rousseff, who has supported passage of the measure, to the Chamber of Deputies, which approved the bill in 2010, and to the three Senate committees that have already endorsed the measure in 2011.

As Chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations and National Defense, Mr. Collor holds a powerful position in the Senate. But the amendments proposed are so retrograde that Collor should hardly be taken seriously.

A freedom of information law is viewed to be one of the principal pillars of transparency and social accountability needed to better combat endemic corruption in Brazil.

Will the Senate cooperate with Rousseff?

Given Senator Collor’s intent, the freedom of information bill will almost certainly forfeit normal legislative procedure.

President Dilma Rousseff will have to work with Senate leader José Sarney to either a) issue an “urgency petition” in order to force the bill out of committee, for an open floor vote, or b) pursue a floor vote that will ultimately approve the bill as it stood before Collor’s amendments.

If the Senator’s amendments are approved, the bill will likely go back to the Chamber of Deputies to expire. What stands in the way of a successful urgency petition is Senate leader José Sarney, who has already indicated his opposition to the bill. Without the Senate leader’s cooperation, moving forward with the urgency petition may be impossible.

In light of recent revelations of corruption by government watchdogs, which have predominantly fallen on parties within Rousseff’s coalition (including Sarney’s PMDB), a strategy to delay or even amend the freedom of information law may be just the revenge that congressional allies have been looking for.

A defeat in the Senate would be an embarrassing step backwards for the Brazilian government, especially after its recent pledge to co-chair the Open Government Partnership, an international initiative whose very intent is openness and transparency.

The amendments proposed by Collor are numerous, but here are just a few highlights:

  • Collor seeks to make all “ultra secret information” permanently secret (“sigilo eterno”) (Art. 24). This stands in contrast to better practice, whereby classification decisions are reviewed after the initial reserve period expires in order to determine whether the justification for secrecy still holds.
  • Collor aims to re-define information so that primary documents are exempted, and only “finished” documents can be obtained by the public (Art. 4, 1; Art. 7).
  • Collor wishes to eliminate the right to obtain information on the “activities” of public bodies, as well as their policies, organization, services (Art. 7, V); use of resources, procurement, and administrative contracts (Art. 7, VI).
  • Collor believes the government should not be “obliged” to publish information on the internet, but that the “possibility” of publishing information should instead exist (Art. 8, 2; Art. 10 (2).

And the grand finale, the death sentence for any freedom of information law:

  • Collor insists that public information requests must be justified (Art.10, 3).

--- Greg Michener, based in Rio de Janeiro, writes the blog, Observing Brazil. He is currently writing a book on Freedom of Information in Latin America for Cambridge University Press.

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