September 28th marked International Right-to-Know Day, which celebrates citizen’s right to know about what their government does and how it performs. But the right to know is more generally about transparency and, ultimately, the political ecology of information. Brazil’s access to public information law does have problems of compliance, implementation, under-investment and political commitment, as we show in an article published this August in Revista de Administracao Publica (FGV). But thinking more broadly about Brazil’s information ecology, we have even more significant problems that emanate from a) unnavigable electoral and political system and b) the information environments produced by Brazil’s large multiparty coalitions.
Brazilian Elections – Adrift in Seas of Information
On the one hand, citizens find themselves adrift in seas of parties, candidates, and electoral complexities. With 13 presidential candidates and more than 8000 candidates for the Chamber of Deputies this year, voters will suffer cognitive “overchoice”, drowning in too much information. Having to choose among a large number of choices tends to produce suboptimum outcomes and low levels of choice satisfaction. Overchoice may be one reason why Brazilians express among the lowest levels of support for democracy in Latin America.
The complexity of the electoral and political systems is another matter altogether. In a recent article in El País, UFRJ Political Scientist Jairo Nicolau admits that he cannot identify the coligações for the upcoming election. He also warns citizens to vote for candidates instead of parties because of a new rule whereby deputies must reach 10% of the quociente electoral to be elected. What type of democratic shipwreck is this?
Brazil’s Legislatures – Information Deserts
Once elections are over, Brazilians’ right to know is frustrated by information deserts created by Brazil’s dominant coalition majorities. Brazil’s legislatures are governed by enormous coalition majorities that quash any opposition, providing few checks and hence little “aeration” of information. The power of these governing coalitions is such that they often buy or influence news media coverage, leading to further desertification of the information ecosystem.
What can be done? Transparency can play a part in invigorating the strength of Brazil’s democracies and markets. Brazil’s new ‘transparency infrastructure’, which includes the Lei de Responsabiliidade Fiscal, the Access to Information Law, its open data system, and laws such as the Marco Regulatorio das ONGs and the Lei de Estatais – are helping to irrigate the information deserts to which citizens have become accustomed.
Yet Brazilian citizens and leaders should think harder about the importance of information for the country’s prosperity and how its political system constricts its flow. The problem appears to be an overarching disrespect for information that manifests itself in myriad ways, from disrespect for media freedom and independence, to faint political commitments towards truth and transparency, and disregard for providing fair educational opportunities for all. If Brazil is to progress as a nation, it needs to take its respect for information more seriously.