Salvadoran Legislature Reforms the Law on Access to Public Information

At 2:30 in the morning last Friday, the Salvadoran Legislature approved reforms to the Law on Public Access to Information (LAIP). Civil society representatives have reacted by calling the changes unconstitutional and a violation of basic human rights. The reforms take out any teeth the LAIP had to force government agencies to provide information requested. President Funes said he will take his time to review the provisions and decide whether to sign Friday’s bill into law or veto it.

A block of 46 representatives from the FMLN, GANA, and PCN parties voted for the reforms, while 29 representatives from the ARENA, CD, PDC, and 4 other independents voted against them.

Norman Guevara, one of the FMLN representatives who voted for the reforms, said the Legislative Assembly hadn’t approved the Bible when they created the Law [on Access to Public Information] and that it could be reformed. Monday an FMLN spokesman said that they were open to reviewing the reforms and that their only obligation is to transparency.

The Legislative Assembly passed the LAIP in 2011 with 55 votes after civil society organizations, led by Grupo Promotor de LAIP, advocated for years for greater transparency and the right to access public information. The LAIP covers most aspects of information management by government agencies – classification of information, release of information, and promoting a culture of transparency. The LAIP also creates an administrative infrastructure to facilitate citizen access to public information.

Friday’s reforms weaken the LAIP in many ways, according to Grupo Promotor. The Institute charged with implementing the LAIP no longer has the authority to resolve conflicts over what information should or should not be restricted – they can only make recommendations that government agencies can ignore.  The reforms also remove the sanctions that were to be imposed if a government agency withheld information. These reforms mean that the Institute will no longer be able to implement the law and guarantee free access of public information.

Over the weekend, Grupo Promotor said the reforms give government entities the privilege of secrecy and silence.

An article posted by La Prensa Grafica hints at a possible back-story behind the reforms. FUNDE, an organization that belongs to Grupo Promotor and has supported the LAIP, recently requested information from the Legislative Assembly about their costs related to Christmas gifts. They also requested information related to how much art the Legislative Assembly had purchased. The Legislature denied the request pertaining to the Christmas gifts and they said that a list of works of art purchased did not exist. The La Prensa Grafica article seems to indicate that the reforms were in response to FUNDE’s requests and that perhaps the FMLN was trying to hide information regarding these expenditures.

Yesterday, Voices spoke with Cristina, an environmentalists who researches and writes investigative reports about issues that affect the Lower Lempa. She told Voices that the LAIP and its implementation have been a success. As an example, she told us that for two years she tried to obtain the National Program for the Reduction of Risks. Government agencies, including the Ministry of the Environment, which she says is the most secretive, never provided her access to the document. Once the LAIP was passed she consulted with the information officials and received everything she needed.

Cristina said, “with regard to investigations, the LAIP has allowed me access to detailed information about industrial and artisan fishing, shrimping, trawlers operating along the coast, mining concessions and licenses, protocols for hydro-electric dam discharges, lists of properties greater than 100 manzanas, and more.”

Since Friday, many civil society representatives have responded to news of the reforms. The Ombudsman for Human Rights, Oscar Luna, said, “as public officials we are obliged to be transparent in our work. The reforms should not be able to affect the right to information that all citizens have.”

The Archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor José Luis Escobar said, “the reforms are a violation of the Constitution of the Republic and the freedom of information.” He added, “I have heard that President [Funes] is going to study the issue, and is reflecting on it, and I as the President not to sanction these reforms and that the law should remain as it is, and that the diputados also reconsider their position.”

Javier Castro, who is the director of legal studies of FUSADES and a representative of the Grupo Promotor, said that group is thinking about legal actions. “We are already evaluating… the resources that we will be able to use at the moment. What we are clear about is that there is a clear violation of the constitution, and that a claim for unconstitutionality is viable.

If Funes signs these reforms into law, it will become much more difficult for activists like Cristina and communities like our partners in the Lower Lempa of Usulután and the mountains of Morazán to access information about the issues that affect them.

The reforms of the LAIP seem to be on par with the constitutional crises that El Salvador has experienced over the past couple years.Democracy is not always easy and sometimes those in power do not like the inconveniences of being transparent or not having control of courts. But it is promising to see civil society stand up to politicians and demand they do the right thing. As Funes reviews the reforms, he will surely consider the outcry from Salvadorans calling for him to veto the bill. And if for some reason he signs the bill into law, Grupo Promotor or other activists like Cristina will have recourse in the Constitutional Court. El Salvador faces a lot of complicated issues – drug trafficking, gangs, economic disparity, and so on. But each time Salvadorans go through one of these democratic growing pains, they come out stronger and better equipped to take on their more complicated problems.

Not to downplay the seriousness of this issue. Salvadorans have worked hard to secure the right to access public information and have a greater voices in their government, and they have the right to be outraged. But this is also an opportunity to solidify the country’s demand for and participation in a transparent and open government.

Voices will be following this story over the coming days/weeks so stay tuned. If you speak Spanish and are on Facebook, Grupo Promotor has a very informative page that we follow.

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