Wild start for FOI confab

LIMA, Peru – An international conference aimed at furthering open records laws in the Americas and the Caribbean got off to something of a wild start Tuesday in Lima.

FOI protestors

Crowds of protestors in Lima, Peru. Photo: Brent Fuller

An estimated 13,000 demonstrators, mostly women, marched through the streets of the Peru’s capital city around mid-day angry about their inability to access a government-subsidised milk programme.

The march delayed Peruvian Prime Minister Yehude Simon’s arrival at the Americas Regional Conference on the Right of Access to Information, hosted in Lima this week by the Carter Center.

‘I should have been here at 2pm sharp,’ Mr. Simon told about 100 conference attendees late in the day. ‘But 13,000 women prevented me from coming.’

Mr. Simon used the protest as a way to stress the importance of open records laws.

‘If these women had the information (about the milk programme), they wouldn’t have been protesting today,’ he said.

Absent from the first day of the conference was Mexico’s information commissioner Juan Pablo Guerrero, who was unable to travel due to the outbreak of swine flu in his country.

Carter Center representative Laura Neuman said it was important to continue with this week’s conference despite the flu scare and the financial and political climate in the region.

Ms Neuman told the conference that the Freedom of Information movement had made great strides in the past decade, but she warned of the dangers of backsliding, or instances where Freedom of Information laws were becoming less effective over time.

‘The problem is much less about getting a law passed,’ Ms Neuman said. ‘It’s much more a failure to implement these laws. We’re continuing to see backsliding even in the United States…we’re facing an on-going fight to stop the over-classification of information.’

The conference, hosted by the Carter Center — a democratic think-tank in Georgia, USA — is timely for the Cayman Islands. Cayman enacted its own Freedom of Information Law in January.

FOI Unit Coordinator Carole Excell and the Cayman Free Press were invited to the conference to update the Carter Center on how things were going with Cayman’s open records experience.

Mrs. Excell has often warned that the simple enactment of an FOI Law in Cayman would not be the ultimate achievement of transparency in the Islands.

‘The public has to be interested,’ Mrs. Excell said. ‘If no one uses it, why have it?’

It does appear that people are using the FOI Law. Cayman is averaging some 100 open records requests per month thus far.

The most important problem that we face is broadening the interests,’ Ms Neuman said. ‘We’re continuing to see these laws being used by the few.’

In some cases, the success of FOI laws in various jurisdictions was seen as a problem as governments released information that made bureaucrats or politicians uncomfortable.

‘Here in Peru there was a huge scandal when the law obliged congressmen and congresswomen to be honest with regard to their own spending…not only their salaries,’ Mr. Simon said. ‘We…modified the law, so that congress was not accountable anymore.’

‘(Peru’s) FOI law is a strong law, but we still don’t have a political conscience.’

Even in countries with long-established open records traditions, such as Canada, noted problems in the use of those laws of late.

‘Increasingly the existence of a law is being used as a barrier to access to information,’ said Canadian Newspaper Association Senior VP David Gollob. ‘What we are seeing is that the government will say ‘no, you have to make a formal access to information request.”

Despite the difficulties, open records laws are expanding throughout the Americas. Representatives from South America’s two largest countries, Argentina and Brazil, told the conference they expected such laws to be voted upon soon.

Brazilian Controller-General Jorge Hage said his country had created quite a robust internet-based information portal within the past year. However, Mr. Hage said an open records law is still a necessary step.

‘Government should provide certain information as a general interest,’ Mr. Hage said, referring to things like audits, and reviews of government spending. ‘But when it comes to the classification of certain levels of secrecy…then we feel that we need better laws than we have.’

Mr. Simon said he believed open records laws were needed to restore credibility within regional governments.

‘If we don’t recover this trust…then let’s don’t complain later about the social unrest, which occurs,’ he said.