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Honduras, Guatemala, Paraguay and Peru backsliding on access to information, warns IAPA

(IAPA/IFEX) - The following is a 16 December 2005 IAPA press release:

IAPA warns of a backslide in public access to information citing new laws in Honduras, Guatemala, Paraguay and Peru.

It praises, on the other hand, the trend toward the elimination of state secrecy by Latin American legislators

Miami (December 16, 2005).- Citing bills under discussion in Honduras and Paraguay which may contradict freedom of expression principles, the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) warned of a backslide in matters of access to public information and pointed to recently approved intelligence legislation in Peru that guts a previous law on public transparency.

On the other hand, IAPA praised the positive regional trend towards changing the "secretive culture of the State" for a more open position on access to public information to the benefit of all citizens. At this time countries that have access laws are: Ecuador, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Peru and the Dominican Republic.

IAPA also cautioned that new proposals should establish international standards of openness, transparency and freedom of expression and uphold the principles of the Declaration of Chapultepec, a document that was drafted in 1994 and since then has been used by the IAPA to promote free access to public information. The document's Art. 3 declares: "The authorities must be compelled by law to make available in a timely and reasonable manner the information generated by the public sector."

Following the lead of the Peruvian Press Council, the IAPA urged Peruvian lawmakers to modify the shortcomings in the National Intelligence System Law approved yesterday by Congress in accordance with the constitutional principles on access that were established in the Law of Transparency and Access to Public Information (Law 27806), enacted in 2002. By adding new categories and timelines in the name of national security for classified information, the IAPA considers this new intelligence law poses a serious threat to the creation of government transparency that was the purpose of the 2002 law.

Gonzalo Marroquín, Chairman of the IAPA's Press Freedom and Information Committee, stated that "we must exercise the utmost caution with these bills because we have seen how the rights of access become empty under the limitations and exemptions that are invariably attached when the regulations for the concrete implementation of the law are passed, as in Panama, or, as just demonstrated in Peru, where significant progress gained over the past two years was erased."

In Honduras, the IAPA raised concerns that the proposed law on access to public information and habeas data, expected to be brought before Congress for debate during the next weeks, contains "confusing elements" on access and threatens to force the private sector to release information. The IAPA warned that including both State obligations and habeas data issues in a single law could prove to be counter-productive.

At the same time, it voiced concern over a bill for access to information approved by the Chamber of Deputies in Paraguay yesterday, stating that it not only legislates the private sector but also sets larger restrictions on access to information, similar to a previous bill that was introduced in 2001, but not passed.

In Guatemala, the government of President Oscar Berger recently approved an Agreement on Free Access to Information affecting the Executive Branch. This lacks depth and allows broad discretion to employees on their decisions to release information or not; in addition, it imposes no sanctions for those who decide to deny information to the petitioner.

Marroquín, Director of the Guatemalan paper Prensa Libre, recalled that the intent and purpose of the Guatemalan government is similar to that of the Argentine Executive branch that also issued a similar decree, "although experience has taught us that that despite appearing positive, these decrees do not, in practice, compel State obedience as a law would".

He pointed to the importance of legislators paying attention to citizens' complaints expressed through institutional channels and enacting laws on information and public acts that citizens have the right to know about. "This should be the goal, not an excuse to include the private sector which is regulated under separate legislation."

Similarly, IAPA President Diana Daniels recalled that this hemisphere-wide organization recently protested the Argentine Congress's delay in approving an access law that had gained a consensus among various institutions and been approved by the Chamber of Deputies in 2003. After Senate modifications imposed limitations and also included the private sector, the gutted bill was dropped.

Emphasizing the critical role of laws governing access to public information, Daniels, of The Washington Post Company, stated that "they allow the common citizen to obtain the information he needs to make decisions in his private life and as a member of society. Without the free flow of information, his right to be informed is seriously jeopardized."

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