Mexico's Right to Know Reforms: Civil Society Perspectives
Thursday, October 25, 2007
9:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.

Welcome and Introduction
Jonathan Fox, Professor, Latin American and Latino Studies Department, University of California, Santa Cruz
Andrew Selee, Director, Woodrow Wilson Center Mexico Institute

Advances and Limitations in the Exercise of the Right to Know: Civil Society Perspectives
Jonathan Fox, Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz
Tania Sánchez Andrade, Former Coordinator of Transparency Project and Consultant, Fundar, Center for Analysis and Research
Priscila Rodriguez Bribiesca, Environmental Lawyer, Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA)
Helena Hofbauer, Founding Director, Fundar and Manager, Innovation and Partnership Development, International Budget Project-Mexico

On October 25, 2007 the editors of Mexico's Right to Know Reforms: Civil Society Perspectives gathered with experts on transparency and accountability issues for the book's English version launch at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Jonathan Fox commented that purpose of the book, also published in Spanish as Derecho a Saber: Balance y perspectives cívicas, was to provide readers with a balanced assessment of the achievements and limitations of Mexico's Federal Law for Transparency and Access to Information through focusing on the law's capacity within a wide-range of issue areas. Using evidence-based examples and the perspectives of civil society organizations, the publication exposes a broader framework for the "Right to Know" reforms. In so doing, he noted, the book would serve as a resource and a point of departure for further studies on transparency and accountability in Mexico.

Tania Sánchez Andrade asserted that the transparency law is changing the relationship between civil society and the state, as civil society organizations, who have been principal users of the Right to Know, are increasingly demanding government accountability. She noted, however, that the law has limitations. It has been deficient in addressing poverty and inequality-related issues due to the fact that the ability to access public information requires technical tools that are not available to all sectors of the population. She also pointed out that in order to take advantage of public information you must know your way around the law. Another flaw, she stated, is that information can be strategically used to benefit certain groups, while discriminating against others. One example of this discrimination is the law's failure to incorporate indigenous linguistic provisions.

Helena Hofbauer remarked that the difficulties in attempting to obtain information from government agencies stem from prolonged bureaucratic processes in which government agencies demand so much precision in the information requested, that if a search does not include an exact document title it can be found to be "inexistent." She noted that thousands of documents are classified as unavailable or inexistent. The challenge for civil society lies in knowing exactly which agency produces specific documents and their exact title before requesting information. Hofbauer commented that public officials' unwillingness to release information is due to their inability to recognize the Right to Know as a basic citizen right. She also pointed out that it is one thing to declare a law, and another to create institutions to implement them. Having information does not help a non-functioning and corrupt system where there is an excess of information but no access to it.

Priscila Rodriguez Bribiesca discussed the role of access to information in the environmental realm, where the government's decision to withhold information can lead to irreparable environmental mistakes. As an environmental lawyer, she emphasized the importance of obtaining information from the government for her clients, especially in cases involving landfills, dams, rivers, forests or other government projects. Rodriguez Bribiesca noted concern with civil society's ability to consolidate its demands and hold the state accountable, and considered the lack of overall knowledge of available information as one of the greatest limitations in the exercise of the Right to Know reforms.

Challenges to Transparency in Mexico
Juan Pablo Guerrero Amparán, Commissioner, Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI)
Jorge Romero León, Executive Director, Fundar Center for Analysis and Research
Libby Haight, Project Coordinator, "Information Access and Program Evaluation in Mexico: Bringing Rural Civil Society In," University of California, Santa Cruz
Kate Doyle, Director, Mexico Project, National Security Archive, GWU

Commissioner Juan Pablo Guerrero Amparán reemphasized that the effectiveness of Mexico's Right to Know reforms rests on a civil society that makes use of the law. He argued that much of the general population is unaware of the existence of the Right to Know reforms; thus lessening their value. He criticized government bureaucracies for their lack of recordkeeping and their illegitimate claims of the "inexistence" of information. The commissioner also commented that private organizations, unions and state governments that receive federal money are still not very transparent; and that often public servants who are themselves corrupt go un-investigated. He noted that some government officials have begun to keep fewer documents on file since the enactment of the law. He stressed that the law should do more to shed light on the actors of corruption, rather than focusing purely on administrative procedures.

Jorge Romero León asserted that budget accountability has been one of the greatest challenges to transparency in Mexico. He pointed out that despite efforts to make federal funds public, Mexico's Ministry of Finance releases only limited information about budgetary allocations, and has actually regressed in the level of its transparency since the implementation of the law. More information was available 2-6 years ago than it is now, and people are denied access to information that was previously available. This is partially due to the fact that the budget for agencies responsible for disseminating information has not grown since the enactment of the law, while the amount of people who want information has. As a result of lacking the infrastructure and funds to deal with requests, Romero León noted that government agencies are learning to sidestep efforts to obtain information instead of address them. He argued that governmental agencies should make a conscious effort to share information with each other in an attempt to decipher what information is actually available and to properly manage information requests

Acknowledging the growing presence of transparency agencies, Libby Haight suggested that more needs to be done hold those agencies as equally accountable as others. She cited the example of the Special Prosecutor of Electoral Crimes (FEPADE), noting that although more transparency is needed on the part of the agency, it also faces significant challenges in its capacity to fight electoral crime. Haight recognized the importance of agencies that protect the rights of citizens and argued that the more transparent they are, the more likely they will generate citizen demand for legal reforms. Due to the fact that information received can be difficult to understand, she suggested further investment in trainings, education and outreach as strategies to increase the use and clarity of transparency laws.

Kate Doyle noted that although there are many challenges, the steadfast progress of what she characterized as Mexico's "second generation" of Right to Know reforms should be commended. She stated that increased usage of the Federal Law for Transparency and Access to Information combined with the increased skills of both requesters and government authorities handling requests should occur within the next few years. In the National Security Archive study of the first three years of the law's implementation she presented, Doyle analyzed the process of accessing information by looking at requests made to several government agencies through the Federal Institute for Access to Information website. While the study revealed compliance by certain agencies, it found that some refused to provide requesters with any documents. Also apparent was that as the level of complexity of a request increased, the requester's satisfaction with the response decreased, indicating that the more complex the request, the less likely the corresponding agency will provide an adequate response. She identified Mexico's government agencies, in particular Mexico's Ministry of Defense, as the largest obstacle to the expansion of transparency in Mexico due to their overwhelming reluctance to share information.