Changing paradigms: FOIA or leaks?

Indian journalist Shylamlal Yadav filed 59 FOI requests to report this story on excessive foreign travel by Indian ministers.

Indian journalist Shylamlal Yadav filed 59 FOI requests to report this story on excessive foreign travel by Indian ministers.

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 »

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