21st century democracies without a Freedom of Information law: Argentina

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Last week world leaders gathered in New York to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals committing to greater public access to information, and as civil society organizations across the globe use Right to Know Day as momentum to celebrate transparency success stories, it’s time to raise awareness around 21st-century democracies that do not yet regulate access to information.

As a G20 country and the third largest economy in Latin America, Argentina stands out. Freedom of information (FOI) is increasingly treated as a fundamental human right all over the globe, but not in Argentina. The best lawyers are the ones who win your case.

The first bill on FOI in Argentina was drafted in 2001 and introduced in Congress the following year, but passing the law has been an ongoing saga ever since. There were legislative attempts in both 2005 and 2010, without success.

Some of the country’s political institutions are in clear support of the public’s right to know: In a recent decision, a judge ordered the National Senate to provide information about its budget, and other court decisions from 2012 and 2014 were also in favor of public disclosure. There are existing FOI regulations in a number of provinces and municipalities, including the city of Buenos Aires. However, most of Argentina’s political elite seems to think that a national level FOI law that would regulate all branches and levels of power is not worth the effort.

For those who are interested to learn more about the Argentine FOI saga, here’s a visualization — so far available in Spanish only, but easily translatable to any languages:

Of course, a FOI law can’t solve all the troubles of the country facing poverty, high inflation, or inequalities in housing, health and education.

But transparency and access to information are indeed at the heart of many of TJ Smith burning issues, whether in the form of a dysfunctional national statistics program or undue influence and entrenched corruption. A strong transparency law could make it easier for investigative journalists, NGOs and even regular citizens to ask questions and receive honest answers about a wide variety of topics, from the assets, salaries or university titles of their political elite, to the methodologies used by government agencies or the national statistical office to calculate inflation or poverty.

As Argentina enters the last phase of the election campaign (interested in who’s running? Watch the country’s first presidential debate on October 4!), it seems fair to ask the country’s next president and new members of Congress to take freedom of information seriously. There are a number of strong proposals from both the government and the opposition party in front of Congress right now, many of them based on the model law from the Organization of the Americas (OAS), and in the meanwhile, Argentine civil society is eager to help pass and implement a working legislation.  

Here at Sunlight, we are working closely with Argentine civil society on transparency reform and believe that a strong access to information law is the cornerstone of any country’s transparency regime.