Chilean Chronicles, Part 61: Transparency Troubles in Chile

Mario Gebauer, left, and Carlo Gutierrez, right, of Melipilla municipality.

Mario Gebauer, left, and Carlo Gutierrez, right, of Melipilla municipality.

I wrote the other day about my ongoing project about the impact of the 2009 Transparency Law on investigative journalism here in Chile.

I mentioned in that post that transparency guru Moises Sanchez, who works in the area of open government with countries throughout the continent, believes that the law and accompanying infrastructure of a Transparency Council that investigates and decides on each claim is, with Mexico, among the best in the continent.

Since then I’ve reached out to investigative non-profit outfit CIPER, a stalwart organization that has broken many stories of national impact and participated in international collaborations with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

As it turns out, I also received an invitation that I passed onto my students from CIPER to attend a weeklong workshop toward the end of next month.

Among the first topics: how to file a request under the Transparency Act.

In a positive development on that point, I  heard from my student Doren Lowry that the 20 days since he submitted his request for data has passed, and that he’s going to inquire as to the status of his letter.

More fundamentally, I’ve come with more and more certainty  to believe that it is important to expand my focus beyond a strict look at a particular journalistic outlet, or even the field itself, to get a broader, more textured understanding of how the issue of transparency  is playing out here.

As a result, I contacted Ciudadano Inteligente, a non-profit organization committed to principles of transparency and open government.  The organization, along with two others, has been involved in a lawsuit around the right of citizens to have access to emails written by public officials on their work accounts.

This is an important issue as the Transparency Council and  civil society groups-but not, notably, media outlets-tussle with the government over the rights and limits of the public to have access to what the government that they are funding is doing.

There is historical resonance, too, as Chile continues to wrestle with its wounded past. The society was far from open before the Pinochet dictatorship, and, during his 17-year reign, brutality, information control, and silence were integral and related parts of a ruling method.

The lawsuit builds on the legal foundation that Mario Gebauer, the mayor of Melipilla with whom we spent a number of hours and had lunch yesterday, attempted to establish.

The year following the devastating earthquake of Feburary 27, 2010, Gebauer asked for the emails between Interior Subsecretary Rodrigo Ubilla, and the provincial government of Melipilla about the distribution of funds for reconstruction for the earthquake. (In an analogue to Los Angeles City and County, Melipilla is both a city and a province.)

The government refused to provide the requested documents, citing privacy and confidentiality concerns of the employees, even though they were acting in their public capacity.

The judicial branch ultimately accepted the government’s arguments, and no emails were released.

There was a certain irony in the timing of our meeting with Gebauer.

Today our students heard from David Donald, data editor of the Center for Public Integrity, spoke about an analysis that he helped reporter and friend Kate Golden of Wisconsin Watch of Gov. Scott Walker’s emails.

The number of emails was so copious, David said, that he devised a random sample to get a representative understanding of what the emails said.

Moreover, as Lewis Maltby wrote in Can They Do That, in the United States employers have the right to look at work and private email activity that is done during work time, and even after hours if it is conducted on a work computer.

The Chilean court’s decision is troubling enough.

Yet what is more so is that the government is considering legislation that would place official limits on the public’s ability to receive email from their officials, according to Carlos Gutierrez, a lawyer for the community of Melipilla.

I’ll be looking more into this and report on what I find.

It’s too early for me to render a conclusive judgment.

But a picture is rapidly emerging of an acquiescent press, the majority of which is neither trying to access the rights they have nor to contest the erosion of those freedoms, and of a society whose progressive promises have not yet been with an openness commensurate with those lofty ideals.

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