I was in Rio de Janeiro earlier this week to take part in a discussion on freedom of information hosted by the Columbia Journalism School. During the meeting, which was part of the launch of the Columbia Global Center in Rio, journalists, activists and academics debated Brazil’s freshly minted Access to Information Law. Signed by President Dilma Rousseff in 2011, it’s a pretty robust law. “Brazil is a patrimonial society where giving out information is not part of the exercise of power,” said Paulo Sotero, a former journalist who is now director of the Brazil Institute in Washington, DC. “The law changes this paradigm.”
Brazil was the 89th country in the world to have FOI legislation. These laws have been hailed as potentially revolutionary: When officials no longer have monopoly over government information, transparency can tilt the balance of power in favor of citizens. But can they change journalistic practice as well?
In Brazil, as in other places where the rule of law is weak and politics is factionalized, there is an entrenched culture of journalistic leaks. Competing political factions routinely use the press to launch damaging exposés on the corruption or other wrongdoing of their rivals. The publication of well-timed leaks from politicians are a long-established political ritual and part of the arsenal of politics. As conduits for leaks, journalists benefit from a culture of selective secrecy. Unsurprisingly, except for the likes of Abraji, the investigative reporting association, and a couple of leading Sao Paolo papers, Brazilian journalists were not the prime campaigners for an FOI law.
Brazil is not unique. Journalists are not always torchbearers for freedom of information laws. Accustomed to having privileged access to information because of their press passes, they are not always enthusiastic supporters of laws that would democratize access.
But, said said Fernando Rodrigues, a leading investigative journalist and former Abraji head, that culture may be changing. The new law, he said, has already powered a number of journalistic exposés. “Tons of documents” have been released because of FOI requests from news organizations, he added, and many publications have made those documents available on their websites. Many of those stories, featured on the website of the Forum for the Right of Access to Public Information, have to do with public spending, including reports on the outsize salaries of civil servants and police and military attachés. Read the rest of this entry »
There’s much pessimism these days about the state of the Balkan media. In a recent panel held at the BIRN Summer School in Mavrovo, Macedonia, Balkan editors said the noose was tightening around the region’s press, citing as examples rising financial pressures on media owners and threats of layoffs of independent journalists. Yet at the same time, some outstanding investigative reporting is being done in the Balkans, thanks not only to a growing and increasingly savvy community of watchdog journalists but also to the robust freedom-of-information laws that many countries in the region have adopted in the last decade.
A global rating of right-to-information laws ranked Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Kosovo among the countries with the best FOI laws in the world, and many journalists are taking advantage of the openness to do groundbreaking reporting. It helps that in some countries – Serbia and Slovenia were cited as particularly good examples – reform-minded information commissioners have interpreted the laws liberally, releasing documents that would not have come to light in previous regimes.
In Slovenia, for example, the blockbuster “In the Name of the State” trilogy exposed the illegal arms trade involving Slovenia and neighboring countries during the Yugoslav wars. Journalists Matej Šurc and Blaž Zgaga spent three years researching the project, which benefitted from the release of 6,000 pages of documents obtained through the Slovene Freedom of Information Act. They exposed how weapons from the former Yugoslav People’s Army warehouses were seized and sold and also how Croatia and Bosnia and Herzogovina obtained arms and munitions from overseas despite a UN embargo. Read the rest of this entry »
Secrecy is deeply embedded in Swiss political, bureaucratic and business culture. It’s of course not surprising that the world’s banking capital puts a premium on discretion and confidentiality. Switzerland is still a preferred location for companies and rich individuals around the world because it offers tax and other advantages, including political stability and a low level of transparency. Many journalists probing business, corruption, and even organized crime are bound to encounter either a Swiss bank account or a Swiss company in the course of their reporting. And getting information on them is not going to be easy.
But even in Switzerland, the walls of secrecy are slowly being breached. Banking secrecy there is no longer as ironclad as it used to be, after the U.S. began aggressively forcing Swiss banks to open their records as part of an effort to collect taxes from American citizens stashing their wealth overseas. Read the rest of this entry »