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Just Because It's Legal Doesn't Make It (a) Right: Citizen Access to Information in Latin America - PART 2

Antonio Lambino's picture

A follow-up to an earlier post on Toby Mendel’s new book The Right to Information in Latin America: A Comparative Legal Survey.  11 country cases and a comparative analysis chapter are organized around the following categories: definition of access to information (“The Right of Access”); rules for processing of information requests (“Procedural Guarantees” ); public authorities responsible for disclosure (“Duty to Publish”); grounds for refusal to disclose (“Exceptions”); complaint mechanisms for refusal of access (“Appeals”); punishment for obstructing access (“Sanctions and Protections”); and public engagement and education (“Promotional Measures”).  

The systematic manner in which Mendel breaks down each country analysis gives the reader a comparative sense of the 11 Latin American countries covered.  As I continued going through the country chapters, I gained an appreciation for the various dimensions of how the “right to information” has been institutionalized to varying degrees in different countries in the region.  It became clear to me that all these categories are important in getting a sense of whether the “right to information” is indeed a right since, as we know, when it comes to law, the devil lurks in the details.

Since it is one of CommGAP’s abiding interests to learn more about citizen capacity to demand for good governance, I paid particular attention to two the two sections that deal directly with public engagement -- “duty to publish” and “promotional measures” – and go beyond the procedures and rules governing actual requests for information.  With regard to the former, Mendel states that “All the laws of Latin America impose a duty on public bodies to publish key information on a proactive or routine basis, even in the absence of a request.”  So far, so good.  However, as regards citizen engagement and education,

“The range of promotional measures provided for varies considerably from law to law.  Some laws – such as those of Chile, Peru, and the Dominican Republic – contain very few measures while other laws – such as those of Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua – contain more extensive measures.  Colombia, exceptionally, does not include any promotional measures at all.”

For free flows of information to lubricate the wheels of effective and efficient governance, it’s necessary but insufficient for the right to information to exist de jure.  And it’s not enough for public servants, the duty holders, to know their responsibilities.   Members of the public, the ultimate holders of the right, deserve to know what they can do within their means and what others have been able to do as well.  As it stands, if a tree falls in the forest, some Latin Americans will hear it; others will not.  It should be the obligation of those who have the biggest bullhorns, such as government and the media, to make sure that as many people as possible know they have the right and how they might exercise it.