Mexican Officials Vote to Change Transparency Laws: A Backward Step in the Name of Security?

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Officials in Mexico have passed constitutional reforms that will greatly affect the public’s ability to access information held by the government. The reform will also affect the autonomy of the national body that oversees this right, the IFAI [en] (Federal Institute for Access to Public Information). Although the reform actually gives more executive powers to the IFAI, the government will now be able to overrule it on the grounds of national security.

Various civil organisations have described these reforms as a backward step for the country in terms of transparency.

In Mexico, access to public information is considered a fundamental right and has been guaranteed by the IFAI since December 2002. As it stands, any person (without having to prove their citizenship) can access, free of charge, any document held by a government body that is of interest to them.

Comisionados IFAI

IFAI commissioners in full session. Photo by the blog’s author

The reform passed by officials on 23rd August 2013 was highly anticipated and widely discussed by organisations that specialise in the subject. The general public, has also joined in with the debate, although to a lesser extent.

Before the vote took place in the Chamber of Deputies, Fundar [en] published a statement in which the organisations México Infórmate (Mexico, Get Informed) and the Colectivo por la Transparencia (Collective for Transparency) expressed their worries over the ruling. In their opinion the ruling “limits the right to access information”, adding that it:

representa un revés a la máxima protección del derecho de acceso a la información y una contradicción del compromiso del Estado Mexicano con el cumplimiento de sus obligaciones internacionales en materia de derechos humanos

represents a complete reversal to the protection of the public's right to access information and a contradiction of Mexico’s agreement to comply with international obligations concerning human rights

This is, in fact, one of the aspects of the reform that most worries these organisations. According to the statement released by Fundar:

Se aprobó un dictamen que propone que algunos titulares de entidades públicas — el Consejero Jurídico, el Procurador General de la República, el Presidente de la Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos y el Presidente del Banco de México –, puedan impugnar las resoluciones del órgano garante del derecho de acceso a la información, bajo supuestos que consideramos demasiado amplios y generales: literalmente, “la seguridad, la estabilidad económica y la protección de derechos humanos”. Esto significa que, en la práctica, el acceso a la información para el ciudadano perderá su calidad de expedito, además de que se judicializa un derecho humano y se contradice el reconocimiento expreso de la especialización y autonomía del órgano garante para dirimir las controversias que se susciten en esta materia.

A ruling has been passed proposing that heads of public bodies, including the Legal Adviser, the Attorney General, the President of the National Commission for Human Rights and the President of the Bank of Mexico, be able to impugn resolutions made by the organisation that oversees the right to access information. They will be able to do this whenever they deem it a threat to “security, economic stability and the protection of human rights”. We, however, consider this too broad and too general. In practice, this means that the public’s ability to access information will be obstructed, that it will become a legal process rather than a human right, and that it will contradict the previous recognition of the IFAI as a specialised and autonomous organisation.

Equally, the organisation Article 19 voiced its desire for the IFAI to remain off-limits to the authorities:

#NiunpasoAtras off-limits and no exceptions #TransparenciaYA #Articulo19

Nevertheless, the constitutional reform passed by representatives gives government officials the authority to impugn decisions made by the IFAI.

On this topic, the Twitter user Javier Peralta wrote (@jjperaltamoreno):

Reform passed on transparency (#Transparencia). The Legal Adviser to @PresidenciaMX will be able to block appeals to the Supreme Court! #Retroceso

Issa Luna Pla (@ilunapla), an expert on the subject, explained that such a measure is comparable to letting the government withhold information “by decree” or by unilateral means:

Giving powers of appeal to the Legal Adviser of @PresidenciaMX against #IFAI is like allowing information to be withheld by decree

Sue Blano (@lamayorblanco) questioned the claim that limiting transparency was about security:

Accessing information is a problem of national security? Sure! Since when are politicians the entire nation? #Ifai #miedo

With uncertainty faced by the public being intensified by the ambiguous interpretations of the ruling by mainstream media in Mexico, Twitter users have been expressing their confusion. Mario Martínez (@mromtz) wrote:

Unless I've misunderstood the headlines, they’ve just gagged the #IFAI

Nevertheless, legislators took the opportunity to declare victory, with Blanca Jímenez C (@BlancaJC) exalting the work of her parliamentary group:

At #GPPAN we are defending the Education Reform (#ReformaEducativa) and Transparency laws (#Transparencia). For a better future for your family

In a similar vein, the deputy Manlio F. Beltrones (@MFBeltrones) declared that:

Guided by maximum publicity, the concerns of society and institutional modernisation, we have strengthened transparency

The right to access information in Mexico and the organisation that oversees that right are generally cited in other Central and South American countries as examples to follow. Faced with the modifications and additions that could happen during the legislative process, Mexicans and the wider international community will have to wait before they know the true effect of this constitutional reform, including the finer details of any laws that come from it.

But one thing is certain: the debate will continue to develop over the coming weeks.

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