Chilean Chronicles, Part 72: Gains and Challenges for Transparency

Francisca Skoknic of CIPER.

Francisca Skoknic of CIPER.

I`ve been digging in the past few weeks on my Fulbright research project about the impact of the 2009 Transparency Law here in Chile.

This week I had the good fortune to meet with Francisca Skoknic, reporter for investigative non-profit outfit CIPER. Although a small shop-Francisca told me on Tuesday that they´ve got a team of just 10 people-they are by far the nation´s leader in hard-hitting news stories.

I also spoke with Felipe Heusser, chief executive officer of Ciudadano Inteligente.org, an internationally-funded non-profit that seeks to use technology to distribute power to the citizenry via transparency, and Rodrigo Mora. He´s the head of Pro Acceso, another non-profit that receives its money from sources outside of Chile, Pro Acceso focuses on legal work to advance its mission of making more information public and expanding the parameters of material covered by the law.

Rodrigo Mora of Pro Acceso.

Rodrigo Mora of Pro Acceso.

I´ll probably write individually about each of the latter three organizations, and for now here are the major points and current state of my thinking as the law heads toward the end of its fifth year of existence.

The good news

Each of these organizations is a part of a burgeoning civil society that is continuing to emerge in post-dictatorship Chile. Francisca, Rodrigo and Felipe all see the law as a fundamental tool in that process.

Each of the organizations uses the law in two primary ways. The first is to give it strength by having a steady volume of requests. Francisca said CIPER folks file requests daily, Felipe said Ciudadano Inteligente has helped citizens file about 1,000 requests thus far and Rodrigo spoken openly about bombarding agencies with requests on a designated topic so that officials there cannot ignore them.

The second method is to choose issues or aspects of the law that could lead to a lawsuit. CIPER was involved in a successful case against then-presidential candidate Sebastian Pinera around his refusal to disclose information about his foundation. The other two organizations were on the losing end of a Supreme Court decision that held that emails of public officials doing public business are not subject to the law.

More focused on documents than data, each organization uses the law as a tool both for present-day Chile as well as a part of the work of historic reconstruction of life during the Pinochet era.

Rodrigo mentioned that many documents about that time have recently been declassified, but have not yet been requested, while Francisca talked about the special section CIPER did for the fortieth anniversary of the coup. CIPER founder Monica Gonzalez, among other projects, played a critical role, along with John Dinges and Peter Kornbluh in bringing some of the regime´s foreign assassinations and the role of the United States to light.

Finally, all three people expressed a positive and optimistic sense of the direction the country is headed in regards to transparency. Francisca called the process ”irreversible”.  Both Felipe and Rodrigo said there has been a lot of progress since the law´s inception.

Series of challenges

At the same time, the organizations and the people doing this work face a number of challenges.

To begin, each of the groups is small and comparatively under-resourced. Pro Acceso has a team of about 5 people, CIPER has but 10, while Ciudadano Inteligente is the biggest with about 17 or 18 employees, according to Felipe.

Their size means that they do not get to some of the projects they want to do.

CIPER would like to better integrate its requests and the documents they produce on its website, but have not yet gotten there due to focusing their limited resources on reporting, for example. Pro Acceso used to do more outreach than it did, and found that it had to focus more on the legal work itself.

A related corollary to this is that, even though they understand the value the community of computer hackers can bring to their work, they have not yet linked in meaningful ways to those people.

Pro Acceso´s difficulty with sustained outreach is both not limited to their organization and a symptom of another challenge: thus far the law has been largely a tool for elite Chileans. That is to say, that wealthier, more educated, digitally-connected people living in urban areas are far more likely to use the law than their poorer, rural, less wired countrymen.

The setback with the court´s decision about emails was a significant one.

In fact, Rodrigo said it was such a regressive decision that at times the folks at Pro Acceso are questioning the wisdom of having brought the case. That an increasing share of public business takes place online and that the case focused only on communication about public issues by public officials on public emails only heightens that concern.

Finally, CIPER is a glaring exception to a largely moribund press.

All three people talked about the concentration of major print media in Chile between COPESA and the Edwards family, owners of El Mercurio, and the resistance those entities have shown to pushing for more transparency. In fact, the editorial page of La Tercera, a COPESA property, sided with the government in the case involving emails.

It is important to note that there are individual journalists who use the law, and the number is few. There’s also the attitude Rodrigo said he’s encountered among journalists and that I heard echoed by a colleague that basically runs as follows: If I have to choose between waiting for more than a month to possible get information that my sources could probably get me in a day or two, I’m going with my sources.

In short, a picture is emerging of a small and dedicated band of transparency advocates, few of whom are journalists and most of whom are based in Santiago. They work in their own areas, and, in some cases, together to give the law meaning and to fight against continued resistance toward Chile’s continued movement into a more open society.

On to politicians and the government next.

To be continued.

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