Journalists who long have depended on inside sources to secretly obtain federal documents for them in Mexico soon will have a formal process to pursue those records.
Mexico’s first national freedom of information law is slated for use June 12, and journalists throughout the country say they plan to test the federal government’s will to open its files to the public. The new law represents a major departure from the entrenched, secretive system that for years has made it difficult for journalists and citizens to access government information that should be public.
“The normal state in Mexico was to be closed,” said Kate Doyle, director of the National Security Archive’s Mexico Project. The National Security Archive is a nonprofit research institute. “The text of the law is well-written and well-conceived. The critical test comes now in the implementation.”
Among the goals of the law: “encourage accountability to citizens” and “contribute to the democratization of Mexican society.”
The roots of the open records campaign stem back more than a quarter-century to when proponents helped land an amendment to the Mexican Constitution that states, “The right to information should be guaranteed by the state.” But there was no regulated way of obligating the government to provide information.
President Vicente Fox Quesada, who won the presidency nearly three years ago, campaigned near election time on an agenda of government transparency. When he won the presidential election, his party ended the over-70-year-rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
Within a year, the daily newspaper Reforma, based in Mexico City, launched a campaign supporting the “right-to-know” in a column titled “Juan Ciudadano” translated “John Citizen,” which regularly chronicles ways that the government has obstructed or denied access to information.
Other movements also took hold. “Grupo Oaxaca,” an alliance of journalists, scholars, editors, representatives of nongovernmental organizations and others, worked in 2001 to inform citizens and lawmakers about the benefits of open government.
The group pressed the Fox administration to draft a bill that would advance public access to information. The key bills that ultimately emerged included one from the Fox administration’s camp – the National Action Party – and the Grupo Oaxaca proposal, a plan that was adopted and sponsored by every party except the president’s.
Analysts and academics from around the world were consulted on the proposals. Media law researcher Ernesto Villanueva, a professor now at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, was harassed and threatened by unidentified individuals – apparently for his critical articles about the administration-sponsored proposal – the Committee to Protect Journalists reported in “Attacks on the Press in 2001.”
The final initiative, approved by the Mexican Congress last year, was a compromise between the two proposals. It was signed into law last June.
Mexico joined more than 40 countries around the world that have laws granting public access to government records, according to a survey published by Privacy International, a London-based group that promotes freedom of expression. Panama and Peru also passed such laws last year.
MAKING LAW INTO REALITY
Mexico’s law mandates that nearly 250 federal government agencies next month open offices to process public information requests. In Mexico City, federal agencies must respond to information requests within 20 working days and deliver the documents 10 working days later. An extension of 20 working days is permitted under the law.
Skeptics in Mexico question whether government offices that are directed to process the requests will have sufficiently trained staff in the capital to open next month.
Freedom of information advocates are “wondering whether the steps the government has taken are going to be adequate,” said Doyle, who has worked with citizens groups on freedom of information campaigns throughout the region. “We’re starting from zero here. There is no consciousness and no tradition about citizen access to government information.”
Still others say it will take time to change the mindset of many bureaucrats in Mexico.
“The bureaucratic culture of secrecy in Mexico is a terrible thing,” said David Arellano Gault, a public administration professor with the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City. Gault studies government corruption, openness and administrative reform. “Obviously we need something like this law. I can expect there’s going to be a lot of resistance.”
The newly created Federal Institute for Access to Public Information will report any complaints about bureaucrats hindering the release of information to the federal anti-corruption agency, which was recently renamed the Secretary of Public Function. The institute is charged with the mammoth task of overseeing the administrative aspects of the new law in action.
The Mexican Congress approved a $21.5 million annual budget for the institute, which has five appointed commissioners who also will review appeals cases from petitioners who are denied information.
Using the law
Academics, analysts and journalists warn that interpreting the 11 exemptions in the law could be tricky. Information becomes classified, for instance, if it is determined that disclosure could compromise national security, international relations or harm the country’s financial stability.
“It’s too vague and could apply to anything,” said Pedro Enrique Armendares, executive director of the Center for Investigative Journalists, an organization in Mexico City that promotes access to information and investigative journalism in Latin America.
Because of this vague phrasing of the law, advocates for open government will be watching closely as the new legislation is enacted. “One of the greatest challenges of the act will be to see how the courts enforce it,” said Jairo Lanao, project attorney for the Inter American Press Association, a nonprofit Miami-based group that promotes freedom of the press.
In the meantime, board members of a watchdog organization known as Libertad de Información-México (Freedom of Information-Mexico), or Limac, are shuttling around the country to promote and educate citizens, legislators and journalists about open records laws. The group will monitor how agencies adhere to the law and report on any problems that may develop. Funded by grants from U.S. organizations, Limac’s members include high-profile journalists, academics, nongovernmental organizations, attorneys and associations of editors, publishers and reporters.
The nonprofit group has helped train freedom of information officers to become trainers. It recently brought in freedom of information law experts from other countries to orient federal judges who could eventually hear some of Mexico’s appeals cases. Among those presenting: an expert from Sweden – the first nation in the world to pass such a measure in its Freedom of the Press Act in 1766.
Already, eight out of Mexico’s 31 states and Mexico City have passed local access to information laws. Some are better than others, says Villanueva, who also serves as board president of Limac.
Some journalists fret that there won’t be great interest in using the new law and that public records requests will be limited to those who have a background in using such tools: foreign correspondents and a core of Mexican journalists who have previously used the U.S. Freedom of Information Act to investigate the government of Mexico.
“Journalists have to know the law and use it. If they don’t, nothing will change,” said Alvaro Delgado, an investigative journalist with Proceso, a hard-hitting news magazine based in Mexico City.
Could the new freedom of information law transform the way journalists investigate the government in Mexico?
The practice of getting documents under the table through government contacts is quite established in Mexico, said Miguel Treviño de Hoyos, an editor of El Norte newspaper in Monterrey, Nuevo León. “I don’t know if it will continue to be the practice,” he said.
“Certainly, we as a group will use the law,” said Treviño de Hoyos, an open records supporter. “We will encourage people to use it.”
Freelance journalist Jeannine Relly is a graduate student at Arizona State University whose research focuses on changes in U.S. government information policy following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.