Chilean Chronicles, Part 102: Culminating Thoughts on Transparency in Chile

Francisca Skoknic of CIPER is one of the people I spoke with about the transparency law in Chile.

Francisca Skoknic of CIPER is one of the people I spoke with about the 2009 Transparency Act in Chile.

Our days left here in Chile can fit on one hand-we’re flying back to Chicago and the United States on December 25-and I find myself in the summing up and looking back place that often is precipitated by the ends of experiences.

As I’ve written before, and really throughout, these chronicles, there have been many rich, meaningful and memorable aspects of our time in the land of Neruda and Mistral, Allende and Pinochet.

Friends.

Colleagues.

Students.

Travel adventures.

A profound sense of living out of our dreams and values.

There’s also been the research I’ve done about the landmark Transparency Act that was passed in 2009, a few years after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found in favor of former presidential candidate Marcel Claude that a right existed to government information.

Among the key components: the creation of an independent Transparency Council to which individuals and groups can appeal if their request for information is denied and accountability not just for functionaries, but for agency leaders who do not supply the data or documents that had been sought.

My goal as a Fulbright Scholar has not been to simply teach a course and conduct an investigation, but rather to spark relationships and bring people together who might not otherwise know each other so that those connections can continue after Dunreith and I return to the United States.

As part of that effort I participated a pair of conversations hosted by Fulbright Commission during the past couple of weeks. My colleagues at the University of Diego Portales and other journalists, folks from the Chilean government, people involved in transparency work in the non-profit sector, members of the Hack/Hackers community and staffers from the U.S. Embassy attended the events.

A research plan evolves

After thanking everyone for attending, I shared my original plan for the project.

Modeled on James Painter’s work on climate change coverage, I had intended to look at a year’s worth of coverage of El Mercurio, the country’s largest paper, before and after the law’s passage to determine what, if anything, had changed.

After arriving here, reading the paper on a more regular basis-it treated the fortieth anniversary of the Pinochet coup like a soccer news brief-and watching El Diario de Agustin, the documentary film that exposed the paper’s complicity with the Pinochet government, I decided to go in a more qualitative direction.

Instead, I approached the topic like a beat I would cover. As part of that commitment, I reported on what I did as I went along, using the iterative approach endorsed by dear friend Fernando Diaz.

As a result, I met with journalists at different levels of prominence and stages of their careers, with non-profit folks like ProAccesso, a group that does legal work on transparency, and Ciudadano Inteligente, a group that works to empower citizens through technology and access to information.

I talked with elected officials like Mario Gebauer, the mayor of Melipilla who had filed a lawsuit pushing for the emails of public officials to be public record.

I met with folks in the computer coding and hacking community as well as with people from the Transparency Council, the organ whose establishment was a key component of the law.

And I interviewed people from the Transparency Commission, the government’s organ dedicated to these issues.

I took other actions, too.

Within the country I attended and presented at Data Tuesdays sponsored by Fundacion Inria Chile, a French non-profit organization, and taught at the Winter Data School held at the University of Diego Portales where I taught. During our Data Journalism class I had students write letters and brought in a bunch of guest speakers, many of whom talked with the students about the importance of acquiring publicly available data.

And, with the help of lawyer friend Macarena Rodriguez, I filed an information request and appeal.

Outside of Chile I attended the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Rio in October and met with members of the data team from La Nacion when we traveled to Buenos Aires.

I blogged throughout about what I learned from these interactions, which took place during a time in which Chile not only marked the fortieth anniversary of the coup, but continued its ongoing transition from a closed and isolated dictatorship to a fitfully emerging democracy more connected to the world through technology and the global economy.

In addition to the specific area of transparency under the law, Chile was going through all kinds of openings from the past and into the present through the work people like the young volunteers of TECHO, who work in a holistic way with poor communities to identify and confront a plan to meet the challenges they face.

Or with people like Jaime Parada, the nation’s first openly gay public official who was elected in 2012 as councilman in the wealthy and politically conservative Providencia neighborhood.

Or members of MOVILH, one of the nation’s most visible and active gay rights organization.

Or Nancy, an Aymara woman who scours the Internet to send up north to members of her community about the devastation mining is doing to their land, who makes traditional handcrafts and is starting to teach her children the language that previously was banned.

Many of these individuals and organizations are part of a transition from an earlier concept of human rights as being individually based and consisting of dictatorship-era violations like torture, detention and disappearance to a more ample and collective vision that include the rights of people with disabilities and members of the LGBT community, the right to a clean environment, and even to Internet access.

I learned a lot through my research.

The good news first

The first part was that there was a lot of good news and positive developments around the law and infrastructure, which, along with Mexico, are among the best in the continent, according to transparency guru Moises Sanchez.

There are a core of people involved in the issue, many of whom expressed optimism and enthusiasm about the direction of transparency in the country.

The number of requests filed by citizens over time has grown to tens of thousands field per year.

It’s both an anti-corruption tool that is a central part of the government’s approach toward transparency and one that has the potential for historic reconstruction to gain a fuller and deeper understanding of what happened in the country during the earlier and darker time of the dictatorship.

The government has posted close to 1,100 data set on its data portal, and is working to integrate those sets with each other and with information from the country’s 15 regions.

The Council’s budget has gone up each year of its existence, increasing by more than 50 percent from 2010 to 2013.

The large papers appear to be using the law more frequently.

There was a Supreme Court decision in November that reversed its earlier position and said that emails from public officials are public record.

And the leadership of journalism organizations like Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Chicago Headline Club are willing to support continued efforts in this area.

Many challenges exist, too

At the same time, the law has many challenges, according to the people with whom I spoke.

Before its reversal, the Supreme Court had issued two decisions saying that public officials did not have to supply emails that had been requested-a position that was backed on the editorial pages of leading newspapers like La Tercera.

Many journalists are not using the law for a number of reasons. Some expressed the feeling that they could choose to wait close to a month, and very possibly longer, for information they could more easily obtain through their sources. Others said that some journalists feel they are betraying their sources if they request information through a freedom of information request-an attitude that suggests that their the relationship with a government official is more important than the public’s right to know.

There is a perception among many that law is the tool of the country’s elite, many of whom are male, educated, wealthy professionals with Internet access.

In 2011 President Sebastian Pinera, in a decision many considered to be politically, chose not to renew the terms of Raul Urrutia and Juan Pablo Olmedo on the Transparency Council, even though the Senate had endorsed their continued service.

The council is not officially linked to civil society, even though that option exists.

Many of the organizations engaged in transparency work have few resources and are isolated from each other. In many cases, there is little outreach.

As I experienced personally in my request, the process can be extremely slow on potentially sensitive data request, with government officials invoking concerns of national security and saying they have too much work to fulfill the request.

Finally, while the judicial and legislative branches have to publish information, they are not subject to the same disclosure requirements as the executive branch.

Based on this balance of positive and negative developments, I suggested that people consider working on legislation to address their concerns, collaborate more actively with each other, dedicate more resources to outreach, encourage the Council to develop an official link with civil society, and connect with people outside the country who are doing the same work.

I concluded by noting the following:

The law is still young, but has tremendous potential.

There has been significant progress, and the value and spirit of the law has yet to be truly realized.

The actions of the people in the room will play a role in the degree to which the potential is converted into reality.

I’m honored to be part of that dialogue.

From there, I opened the floor for discussion, which in both cases was lively and wide ranging.

I don’t want in any way to romanticize or elevate what occurred.

As always, the work of making a lofty promise real falls to those who live in that time and who must decide whether it is worth the effort, whether we want it enough.

It’s true that Dr. King said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

But he also said and wrote repeatedly that there is nothing inevitable about time’s passage and social progress.

Time itself is neutral, he said.

I did some research.

Two groups gathered and listened and dialogued with each other.

Folks who did not know each other now have met.

We’ve made a start, and we’ll see how far we go from here.

I know that I’ll continue to work on this issue.

I’m transparent about that.

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