After more than ten years of discussion a law which will allow Guatemalan citizens to access public information was finally passed on 23 September. It was hailed as a step forward for government transparency and though access to such information is guaranteed in the constitution this right has now been formalised. The law will not come into effect immediately – a period of 180 days is being allowed for public and private bodies who might be asked for information to prepare.
The law will allow access to information about the administration of public funds and information about personnel salaries and expenses. There are also legal sanctions for those who do not deliver the requested information within ten days.
I shall be interested to see how this works out in practice, and notice some stark contrasts and maybe warnings for Guatemala in the way in which our own freedom of information (FoI) laws came into effect and are currently being administered. First, consider the time scale. There was an attempt by some in congress to reduce the delay in the law’s coming into effect to 90 days, since they believed that being transparent was not a matter of time: one either is or is not. Those who wanted a longer preparation period won the day, but while the proponents of the shorter period may be sorry they lost they might like to apply their transparency test to a country where operational freedom of information was delayed for a full five years from its passing. I am also not aware that even when it did come into effect that we have recourse to any sanction if information is not forthcoming.
Other people have also warned of problems. The president himself has said that the new power should be used in an orderly fashion, not abusively, and Frank la Rue expressed a concern that certain data would be classed as not open to access. In this country a review of the operation of the freedom of information after one year claimed that it was imposing too heavy a burden and dealing with too many frivolous requests such as the infamous request to know how much was spent on Ferrero Rocher chocolates in UK embassies. There are always suspicions that denial of information on the grounds of security is more about embarrassment of the powerful than protecting the state.
I am deeply skeptical of the real commitment to FoI in this country, when I see, for example, a request being refused from the website WhatDoTheyKnow on the grounds that any papers released could not be placed there as this would break copyright, or the a serious suggestion for reducing the burden of FoI would have meant that a news organisation as large as the BBC would be restricted to one request every three months. I hope that the Guatemalan government does have a commitment to make transparency a habit, something that its organs “just are”, in the face of the cost and back covering arguments that might be deployed against it. I shall leave the last word to Manfredo Marroquín of Acción Ciudadana who said “The challenge is that the citizenry use this law to defend themselves from abuse and partiality” (author translation)
Categories: Human Rights