Chile’s new Transparency Law, obligating the government to divulge millions of documents for public scrutiny, including how much each politician earns, came into effect on Sunday.
Law 20.285, known as the Public Information Access Law or Transparency Law, dictates that on a monthly basis, the government and all related bodies such as the Senate, Chambers of Congress, the Central Bank, the Judicial Powers, the armed forces and the municipalities, must publish information pertaining to how they function on their websites.
This includes a list of staff, their salaries, the benefits they receive, the organic structure of the body, the budget, expenses, revenue, details about trips, and about the businesses contracted by the government.
In accordance with the law, all this information was published on the presidential Web site on Sunday.
Government bodies will also have to respond to all citizen requests for information within a 20-day period, which can be extended in special circumstances but only by 10 days.
President Michelle Bachelet said the law will help create a sense of accountability in government bodies. “With this law, the back-and-forth accusations and doubts about the honour of certain individuals will be part of the past because now every citizen will have the opportunity to inform themselves.”
Senate President Jovino Novoa expressed a similar sentiment when he said, “The best antidote for corruption is transparency”.
Essentially, the Transparency Law will function on two levels: “Active Transparency,” which requires information to be made public on the Internet, and “Passive Transparency,” which requires that information to be made available on public request.
Some bodies and smaller municipalities asked for a more gradual trial period for the law, saying that publishing all this information immediately would be difficult. There are still many precincts that function without Web sites, according to Claudio Arriagada Vice President of the Chilean Association of the Municipalities. These municipalities have been given permission to meet the law’s requirements on a gradual basis.
Government spokeswoman Carolina Toha said the law would mean an important change for Chileans. “It’s a new level that we are building for the citizens, a much broader right to know that the state has created. We know [the law] could have problems, that there could be difficulties, but the work has been tremendous, and we believe the leap forward will be gigantic”.
However, there are exceptions to the law. Executive Secretary of the Integrity and Transparency Agency Felipe del Solar pointed out that information about the private lives of individuals, information that is part of the judicial process or information that could endanger national security would be out of bounds.
The law was created by the Committee for Transparency, an independent body been given the task of monitoring the law and making sure it is being abided by. If requests for information are not met, members of the public can appeal to the committee to uphold their rights for information access.
But there are some who are pessimistic about what the law can achieve and whether it will make a real difference in Chile’s political system.
Maria Elena Roza, National Coordinator of the Alliance for A Better Quality of Life, told The Santiago Times that it would soon be clear whether the law would work in practice. For years her organization has unsuccessfully tried to get information from the government about the location of transgenic and hybrid crops in Chile. Today the organization put in a new request for information, and this time, by law, the government is obligated to hand over the information in 20 days.
“We want to see how it will work in practice,” she said. “The waiting period isn’t long, so we should be able to see in the near 2 future whether it will work or not. The government announces many initiatives, but many times they have not stuck to them.”
Educating and informing the public will be an important part of this law, said Juan Carlos Cardenes, Director of NGO Centro Ecoceanos. “From today, the diffusion of the law and how it works to the public is vital.”
“We have been left with the challenge to see if we, the public, will really be able to access important information, or whether we will just be given a whole lot of formal information that isn’t relevant.”
By Natalie Muller - The Santiago Times