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Is Mexico Doing a Better Job with Access to Information and Transparency than the US? – At Least on the National Level

October 23, 2012

By: Julia Collins

On June 10th, 2002 Mexico signed into law its first Freedom of Information Act.  The now 10-year-old law – an adolescent in comparison to America’s middle-aged, 46-year-old FOIA – outshines the US as the “global Gold standard” of championing the right to know according to National Security Archive’s Tom Blanton.

National Security Archive Director, Tom Blanton speaks at the “Encuentro de Expertos” event at the Wilson Center. Photo by Julia Collins

On Thursday, October 11th, experts gathered to discuss the impact and efficacy of the Mexican Freedom of Information Law at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.  The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, IFAI, the Citizen’s Initiative for the Promotion of the Culture of Dialogue, and CIDE hosted Latin America experts at the “Access to Information and Accountability: A Global Context” event.  The event concluded with an air of hopefulness and pride about the plight of Mexico’s FOIA law at the national level, while advocating for improvements in accessibility of information and enforcement of the law on a state and local level.

The event –led by Woodrow Wilson Center’s VP for Programs, Andrew Selee; and IFAI’s President Commissioner, Jacqueline Peschard–  featured two panel discussions.  The first discussed The Right for Access for Information from a Cross-border experiential context while the second panel focused on Access to Information and Accountability from a Civil Society experiential standpoint.  (See video of event and full list of panelists below)

No one thought Mexico would a leader in the fight for transparency, and yet on the federal level, Mexico has been successful at broad access and enforcement provisions under the FOIA law.  According to Andrew Seele, democratic transitions generate excitement, but the hard work actually begins once a democracy is established.  Access and transparency in government doesn’t always lead to accountability or widespread awareness of released information.  The panelists agreed that at a state and local level, the law has yet to take hold or be effectively enforced.

Another problem is getting the average citizen to make use of the law.  The panelists discussed the gap between having access to governmental records and getting relevant information out to civil society at large in plain language.  The experts advocated taking this data and making it more accessible by paring down information, localizing and also distributing it via other means such as radio.  It is not enough to have good laws, people need to actually use the law to ensure real government transparency and accountability.  When it comes to accountability, Mexico has a long way to go, but it’s headed in the right direction.

Such a thing as too much information? The future of access to information

The discussion also touched on the overwhelming amount of information publicly available.  Tom Blanton noted that during the 8 years of the Bush administration approximately 220 million emails were exchanged just among internal staff.  He went on the say that the White House staff of Obama most likely topped that number in the first year.  Karen Finnegan, a high ranking official from the Office of Government Information Services, commented on the overwhelming surge of tech information, citing the need to make it more searchable.  She mentioned that research on navigating the mind-boggling amount of information in the new digital era is currently underway .

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The panels included the following speakers:

The Right for Access to Information: a Cross-border Experience

Moderated by: Jacqueline Peschard, IFAI

  • Catalina Botero, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
  • Andrew Selee, Vice President for Programs, Woodrow Wilson Center
  • Thomas Blanton, Director, National Security Archive
  • Marcos Mendiburo, Senior Specialist in Social Development, World Bank
  • Karen Finnegan, Deputy Director Office of Government Information Services

Access to Information and Accountability: Civil Society Experiences

Moderated by: Mauricio Merino, CIDE

  • Elio Villasenor, Director, Citizen’s Initiative for the Promotion of the Culture of Dialogue
  • Oscar Chacon, Executive Director, National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities
  • Bill Buzenberg, Executive Director, Center for Public Integrity
  • Patrice McDermott, Executive Director, Open the Government
  • Vivek Ramkumar, Manager, International Budget Partnership

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