Transparency for them, privacy for us! As its honeymoon draws to a close, the Bolsonaro government has revealed an insecure commitment to transparency. There are good reasons for feeling insecure. My research (here and here, and forthcoming book) has shown that few democratic regimes are as undecided about transparency as uncohesive minority governments, of which Bolsonaro’s is a prime example. Not only does Bolsonaro lack a reliable majority coalition in Congress, but his administration has been riveted by divisions among politicians, technocrats, military leaders, incompetents and ideologues. The actions of this cast of characters conceals little poetic irony.
A few days ago, we learned from a denied freedom of information (FOI) request by Globo reporters that a certain Colonel Laranja (Portuguese for ‘intermediary’ or ‘bagman’), acting as the head of presidential security, signed an order in February 2019 to classify all visits to the president’s palace as confidential – for a period of 5 years. One of the most basic principles of open government and transparency is clarity on who meets with public officials and when. In most countries, this principle is codified in lobbying regulation, something that Brazil still lacks despite bills languishing in Congress for more than a decade.
This last week, however, was not the first time that the Bolsonaro administration hazarded ‘right to privacy’ claims over the public’s republican right to know. Right at the beginning of the new president’s term, Minister Sergio Moro asserted that demands for details regarding a meeting with Taurus Firearms, a powerhouse arms lobby in Brazil, constituted a breach of privacy. The mistaken belief that ‘privacy’ trumps transparency in the democratic hierarchy of political values – particularly in a case of the public’s clear right to know – is profoundly misguided.
A Quiet Assault on Government Transparency?
But it seems to be in keeping with a quiet assault on government transparency. It all began two-months after Bolsonaro assumed office, when Vice President Hamilton Mourao signed an infamous secrecy decree (9690/2019). The measure would have vastly increased the number of authorities permitted to declare information ‘secret’ – a clear strike at Brazil’s recent freedom of information (FOI). Thankfully, the result of that audacious scheme was decree 9690’s ignominious defeat in the Lower House – emblematically, the government’s first major defeat in Congress – and its subsequent revocation. But Congress appears to be, similar to the Bolsonaro administration, a beast of two heads in relation to transparency. Since April 2019, Senate President Davi Alcolumbre (DEM) has refused to disclose a million Reales worth of receipts on ‘printing materials’ spent at three small printers in Brasilia (the Senate has its own printer) and has given carte blanche for all Senator’s to conceal their discretionary expenses.
Or A Push Forward?
Yet despite these menacing precedents, the transparency agenda has received a push forward from some quarters. Finance Minister Paulo Guedes, eager to slash budgetary bilge, pushed for the passage of decree 9.781/2019, which finally imposes transparency obligations on the ‘S-System’, a corporativist, business-welfare relic that encompasses nine services associated with various conferederations (confederation of industry, transport, agriculture, etc). Although S-System leaders call the measure unconstitutional, the S-System received more than 62% of its R$34.9 billion budget (2016 numbers) from taxpayers. According to article 2 of the FOI law, any private or nonprofit entity receiving government money for “public interest acts” is subject to transparency obligations, and the S-system should have been included in the law’s reach from the very beginning.
Unprincipled Approach to Transparency
Taken together, transparency precedents thus far suggest unprincipled commitments to transparency. Transparency is imposed when it abets policy goals, but is rejected when it imposes upon discretionary activity (i.e. privacy). One would hope more from an administration elected to clean up government’s finances and advance probity and the rule of law. Both those who voted for and against Bolsonaro prefer to see transparency wax rather than wane. And yet while leaders sometimes need a measure of privacy to conduct honest deliberation unconstrained by outside pressures, to claim privacy and shroud in secrecy basic facts – such as the who, when and what of government meetings or expenses – is contrary to the spirit and letter of democratic, republican government.