Journalists Divided Over Government Transparency Bill
SAN JUAN—The measure that seeks to establish a public policy of transparency by creating a legal procedure to have access to government documents, was rejected by two journalism organizations arguing that it creates more roadblocks in the flow of information and adds more bureaucratic levels in a time of a fiscal crisis.
“Our main concern is that this bill recognizes the government’s control over information it is supposed to give,” Journalism Association (Asppro by its Spanish acronym) President Juan Hernández said.
The legislation, however, has the support of some 40 journalists and 26 organizations. At a hearing on Wednesday, lawyer and professor Efren Rivera stressed the importance of the bill.
“This is aimed at increasing transparency in government operations and strengthen our fundamental right to information,” he said.
House Bill 2944, which was filed at the request of the Center for Investigative Reporting by PDP Rep. José Varela and NPP Rep. Carlos Méndez, states that the government will have a public policy of openness that includes having the technology to ensure the access to government documents. It also declares the access to information as a fundamental right that must be guaranteed by government contractors and their agents in a real, direct and free flowing manner.
All public servants must provide specific reasons for refusing to grant access to government documents.
The bill requires all agencies to have certain information available in their websites including the daily agenda of heads of agencies, cities and corporations; information about official trips, a detailed budget of expenditures; salaries paid to workers as well as hikes; a description of selection processes, minutes o meetings and resolutions; details of contracts; licenses, permits or decrees that were granted or are in process; list of lobbyists and interest groups,; court rulings; strategic plans, legislative proposals; calendars of public hearings, audits and other information that can provide data on the agencies’ operations.
The bill gives agencies seven days to deal with requests of information, a period that can be extended for five days. The request will be done through a written form.
Although the bill states that all information is public, it will allow agencies to redact or comply partially with the request.
Under the legislation, all public officials will be required to keep a registry of his or her activities and of the documents created, which will be organized in files according to topic. All written notes taken by a public servant must be incorporated in the files.
Each agency will have an information officer in charge of dealing with requests for information, which is a person that is not the agency’s press official. The official required to submit annual reports.
The legislation creates an Administrative Revising Board that will handle all cases in which an agency denies access to an information or provides part of the information Nonetheless, individuals will still be able to go to court directly to force an agency to provide the information.
The board will be comprised by three members and one substitute member that will be selected by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The governor will select two of the board members from a list provided by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the G-8 Group, Casa Pueblo and the Youth Development Institute.
The legislation also creates a Public Information Defender that will represent all individuals in the appeals process before the Board, taking into account if they are indigents and the public impact of the information.
Agencies will still be able to deny requests for information if the information contains the identity of an undercover agent or an informant unless the person requesting the information is claiming civil rights violations; if the information contains evidentiary privileges or if it was obtained by a lawmaker as part of a probe before filing a bill or if it is information deemed confidential by law.
Public officials who maliciously obstruct requests or information could face fines of up to $1,000.
Overseas Press Club President Gary Javier said his organization was not ready to take a stance on the bill because there was no unanimous consensus among board members. Nonetheless, the OPC expressed concern about the fact that it would create another agency with two officials making about $90,000. “For that reason, there is concern that this organism will end up forming part of a burocratic process that slows down the flow of information and that does not substitute the tool that is available right now, which is the courts,” he said.
Hernández, on the other hand, said the bill establishes certain terms that are unrealistic to the exercise of the journalism profession as reporters need to obtain information fast. Such information is usually obtained through press officers who will now delegate such tasks to information officers created by the bill. “The time frame to get the information could last two months,” he said.
Hernández, a Caribbean Business reporter, noted that the government provides in an efficient manner all sorts of documents such as birth certificates. “The law wants to restructure the whole process of access to information, including information that the state already provides,” he said.
He also objected having specific groups have a say in who is a member of the Revising Board because the groups like the G-8 or the CPI do not represent journalists.
The law and court rulings already declare that government information is public. “The proponents of this bill have contended that what is needed is a culture of education to recognize the public nature of government documents,” he said.
Oscar Serrano, director of NotiCel, said the Association was given a copy of the bill six months ago and that in all of this time, it did not provide changes to the bill. He also noted that the Association has declined to have meetings with journalists to discuss the bill despite repeated requests. “Why he has not convened a meeting?,” he said.
“There are requests for a meeting to discuss it with members,” he added. “Our experience is that those who have read the bill thoroughly and in good faith, support it…We have had a lot of people who have commented based on impressions but who have not really read the bill.”
Hernández said Serrano assumes that there is only one interpretation of the bill. He also noted that only one person verbally and informally asked him directly to hold a meeting with the organization’s membership to discuss the bill.
Hernández said that anyone who believes the organization has been negligent in dealing with the issue, can convene a meeting with the approval of two-thirds of the members. He also said that while Association met with Serrano to discuss the bill in November, it did not provide suggestions because the board opted to stay out of the process of drafting the bill.