Surrendering Secrecy in the Senate

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On the 25th of October 2011, The Brazilian Senate enacted a keystone measure to shore up the country’s growing transparency infrastructure, a freedom of information law.  Signed by President Dilma Rousseff on the 18th of November, the law will go into effect 180 days from the date of promulgation, on May 18th, 2012. The question is now whether Brazil’s freedom of information law will open windows into the inner workings of government, or merely serve as window-dressing.

This first post looks at enactment of this law in the Senate, and the next post will examine the law’s features.

Below is a timeline representing the major events along the freedom of information law’s trajectory and some blog posts that have accompanied it. Have fun with it:

Brazil is a country that struggles with secrecy, and the new freedom of information law reflects this struggle. It has the longest reserve period of any country in Latin America (25 years), three levels of secrecy (reserved, secret and ultra-secret), and Brazil was among the last quartile of countries in Latin America to pass a law. The law’s final day in Congress also reflected Brazil’s struggle with secrecy.

Dissecting the Rhetoric of Secrecy

On that day, one of the measure’s most fervent opponents made an impassioned plea to foil openness. During the preceding half-year, disgraced ex-President and Senator for the poor northeastern state of Alagoas, Fernando Collor, had used his position as Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee to delay enactment of the FOI bill (see timeline). On the 25th of October, the Senator was repeatedly told to wrap-up his speech, which lasted over an hour and a quarter. His goal was to convince the Chamber to support his proposed amendments, even though his text dismissed much of what the Chamber of Deputies and three committees in the Senate had already approved.

The speech featured two lines of reasoning that made ample use of prevarication.  Senator Collor’s first argument held that his committee’s amendments brought the freedom of information bill back into line with the bill originally introduced into Congress by then-Chief-of-Staff Dilma Rousseff in 2009. This claim was simple fabrication; as I have previously argued, Collor’s amendments would have destroyed the law. Lula’s 2009 bill was on the weak side, but not explicitly in favor of secrecy, in contrast to Collor’s. The Senator’s second argument stipulated that Brazil would “be the first country to open up all its documents to the world,” posing a real danger to national security and the integrity of the state. With this argument Collor tried to convince Senators that the bill did not make a distinction between ‘administrative’ and ‘state’ information. This line of argument simply confounds the issue of sensitive information, which is not based on a state-administrative dichotomy, but rather on the law’s section on ‘exceptions’ from disclosure.

These rhetorical canards did not work; legislators were well-enough informed to recognize that the bill approved by the Chamber of Deputies was more in line with international principles than the low-ball legislative proposal introduced by Lula administration in 2009; and they also recognized that the law provides for a series of robust exceptions to disclosure. Collor’s deceptive claim that all information would be indiscriminately opened up to the public clearly failed to alarm most Senators, many of whom had (surprisingly) read the measure. Speaking in front of the Senate a few minutes after Collor’s tirade, Senator Aloysio Nunes (PSDB) openly questioned the veracity of Collor’s words: “in my understanding of the law, not all of the acts of government have to public.” In the end, Collor’s amendments were voted down in devastating fashion: 9 votes in favor and 43 against.

Collor’s speech demonstrated that justifications for secrecy are so weak in this day and age, that few options apart from fear-mongering, exaggeration, and prevarication exist.

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