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Three Harmless Words

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

"Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it. Once I appreciated the full enormity of the blunder, I used to say - more than a little unfairly - to any civil servant who would listen: Where was Sir Humphrey when I needed him? We had legislated in the first throes of power. How could you, knowing what you know have allowed us to do such a thing so utterly undermining of sensible government?"

This quote is, actually, not from someone who has been devoting his political career to suppressing information and oppressing the media. It’s from Tony Blair. In his memoirs, A Journey, he argues that his Freedom of Information Act was used not by the people, whom it was intended for, but by journalists to attack the government. Eduardo Bertoni from Palermo University Law School uses this quote in his study on the role of media for achieving the adoption of legislation providing access to public information.

Using case studies from Mexico and Argentina, Bertoni shows the process of ATI laws getting adopted. In both countries, the initiation of the legislation was very much a matter of coalitions. In Mexico, the coalition lobbying for legislation was led by journalists, representatives of the media industry, and academics. When the government started the legislative process, it was widely publicized by the media, helping to secure public support. There were regular columns supporting the law, and targeted campaigns to alleviate citizens’ concerns about it. In the end, “the right to access to information became a ‘politically correct’ issue about which all public-political actors concurred,” Bertoni explains. The law was passed unanimously by Congress in 2002.

In Argentina it was the governmental Anticorruption Office that started a participatory process to draft and pass a law on Access to Information. For about a year, politicians, legislators, academics, members of non-governmental organizations, journalists and media executives met and drafted a law adhering to international standards. Civil society organizations, including professional journalists’ associations, lobbied for Parliament to start deliberations. Media coverage of the efforts was irregular. The Senate did not pay much attention. After about two years of unsuccessful lobbying, some media companies joined the efforts, but the coalition did not last long. Until today, Argentina has not passed an Access to Information Law.

Bertoni summarizes that “news coverage of these bills is essential to increase citizen awareness and thus have an effect on public authorities, but media participation can also have different and undesired results.” Whether the media and pro-law coalitions can do any good mainly depends on the political environment. In Mexico, the law was introduced at a time when Vicente Fox was elected President and came to power with a unifying agenda including transparency and fighting corruption. This climate allowed diverse stakeholders to come together and draft the bill. In Argentina, in times of political antagonism, the involvement of the media in the push for legislation amplified conflict between political parties and led to a stalemate.

Bertoni’s comprehensive study goes on to examine the use of Access to Information laws by the media, concluding that “journalists make little use of access to information laws, or at least less than expected” – Tony Blair’s impressions notwithstanding. There’s a lot to learn from this study. The role of coalitions for reform is nicely spelled out here. It is also interesting to see that, depending on the political climate, media involvement is not necessarily a good thing.

This week Tuesday, we celebrated World Press Freedom Day. Media support to ATI legislation is one contribution to achieving press freedom. Another, as Bertoni puts it: “Each time that journalists exercise the right and publish a story, they broadcast the existence of the law. Thus they show the law’s potential and encouraging imitation by their peers and by all citizens who are interested in knowing what their representatives do in their name. In this sense, ‘the best way for journalists to promote the right to information is by example.’”

Picture: Flickr user cobalt123

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