On September 29, 2016, Law No. 27,275 was published in the Official Bulletin of Argentina to regulate the right of access to public information. Thus, Argentina is no longer in the list of countries without this right protected.This law is supported across the political spectrum and is the result of significant work across civil society. In addition, this law is in line with the requirements of the model proposed by the OAS.
This law represents significant progress for the effective exercise of the right to public information. It recognizes the universal nature of the right of all citizens to request information without having to express the reasons for their request. The institutions with the obligation to give a response are the three branches of the Argentine State, the Council of the Judiciary, the Public Ministry of Defense of Public Prosecutions and, with some exceptions, also private entities who manage public funds. Alongside the obligation to provide information when requested, the law requires the creation of the Agency for Access to Public Information as the guarantor agency to ensure compliance with the right of access to public information. The law also mandates the obligation of the state to implement policies of active transparency, which means that departments and government bodies should proactively publish information. Another key aspect is that the state should provide access to such information in digital and open formats.
Fundación Conocimiento Abierto (FCA) is the Open Knowledge local group in Argentina and its mission is to contribute to developing innovation, improving the ways in which citizens can participate in civic life, and achieving transparency through technology, open government, access to information and openness of public data.
FCA with other NGOs created a platform to report on the process of voting on the Freedom of Information Act in both houses of the National Congress during 2016. In this project, we created the accesoalainfo.org campaign website which is an online platform that aims to give information to citizens about the right to access public information, the national and international context about this right, and the ongoing process in Congress. This project adds value in society by strengthening democracy and providing mechanisms for greater transparency.
The Process: how an idea became a law
On May 18, 2016, the Access to Information law proposed by the Executive Branch obtained, with several significant modifications, preliminary approval in the Chamber of Deputies. This approval came with a large majority — 229 votes in favor, 4 against and one abstention Some of the changes incorporated were: public information should be delivered in open and digital formats; the opinion of the Bicameral Commission happens to have a binding character in the moment for regarding the removal of the director of the Agency, and some further exceptions were added. Some of these changes were requested in a joint document presented by several NGOs, including FCA and was published trough the accesoalainfo.org website.
The Senate approved the proposal but with a few more amendments of their own. In accordance with the Argentinean parliamentary process, this then had to go back to the Chamber of Deputies for final approval. Finally, the Law on Access to Information was passed. The Chamber of Deputies approved with 182 in favor and 16 against the project without the intervening changes in the Senate.
This is the third time the National Congress has debated a bill on access to public information. The law was passed after 15 years of debate. In 2001, a project drawn up by the Anti-Corruption Office with support from a number of Civil Society Organizations received preliminary approval by the Chamber of Deputies. But after the Senate introduced changes, the deputies never gave treatment to the modified project. In 2010, the reverse situation occurred: the Senate gave preliminary approval to the project, but the Chamber of Deputies never advanced in their treatment. In other words, it has been a long time coming!
What changes will this law produce in the day to day lives of Argentinean citizens?
Access to public information is an essential aspect of democracy and democratic governance. Access to information is a key tool for promoting improvements in government action, especially for concerns related to the administration of public resources. Access to information is also essential for the processes of accountability and transparency of public management.
Recognition and regulation of the right to access information enhance the capabilities of citizenship. Since transparency increases the ability of people to participate in an informed manner, they can more easily identify and demand economic and social policies sensitive to their priorities and needs. That is, Law No. 27,275 is a key tool for citizen participation and for the promotion of an informed electorate. The right of access to information boosts the involvement of people and organizations in the political process. It generates empowerment and cooperation between the people and the government. This law is part of a wider transformative process which promotes a more solid democratic system.
Added to this, access to information is a key tool for preventing and combating corruption. It facilitates the exercise of public control over most government actions. Therefore, this Act contributes in generating more confidence in government institutions creating permanent communication channels between citizens and their accountable government leaders.
On the other hand, access to information is key to the protection of other rights, such as economic, social and cultural rights. The Argentine law No. 27,275 will allow citizens of Argentina to know information related to the development of public policy and state decisions that affect the development and enjoyment of these rights. Thus, the law develops the capacity of citizens to make informed decisions and concrete actions to drive improvements in basic public services such as health, education, public safety.
Who are the “obligors” to provide public information?
The law mandates apply to several entities, including: the national public administration; the Legislature; the Judiciary of the Nation; the Public Prosecutor’s Office; the Public Ministry of Defense; the Judicial Council; companies and state companies that cover state enterprises, state companies, corporations with majority state-owned, mixed economy societies; businesses and companies in which the national government has a minority stake, but only with regard to the State participation; Dealers, licensees and licensees of public services; business organizations, political parties, trade unions, universities; institutions or funds whose administration, custody or preservation is in charge of the national state; the Central Bank of Argentina, among others.
But are there any exceptions?
Yes, the law provides a number of exceptions: for example, information classified as proprietary or confidential or secret for reasons of defense or foreign policy information; information that could jeopardize the functioning of the financial system; trade secrets, commercial, financial, scientific disclosure could harm the level of competitiveness; information containing personal data regulated by law 25,326; information protected by professional secrecy; corresponding to a corporation subject to public offering regime, among other information.
Should you pay for access to information? Is the citizen expected to pay for copying cost?
Under the law, the public information access is free if a hard copy is not required. The reproduction costs are payable by the applicant.
What is the expected time to receive an answer?
The institutions required by law have up to 15 working days to respond to requests for information. They can request an extension, only one-time, 15 days but they must justify in writing to the applicant the reason for the extension.
What is the challenge from now on?
The main challenge is the effective implementation of the law. For this is it very important that the government design the key mechanisms to implementation and public policies that ensure the answers to requests for information and achieve compliance with the principle of maximum disclosure of public information. This is accompanied by a process of sensitization and training of civil servants and citizens for full enjoyment of this right and a process towards the consolidation of an open government. We are going to continue using the accesoalainfo.org platform for this goal.