How Brazil is opening up access to official information

By Beth McLoughlin
Rio de Janeiro

image captionCorruption accusations have come to the fore over the past year

As 2011 draws to a close in Brazil with the usual fervent New Year's Eve celebrations, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is marking a year in office.

She enjoys continued high approval ratings but has lost six ministers amid corruption allegations, which they all deny.

Amid the upheavals in her cabinet, President Rousseff's first 12 months also saw her sign into law a new freedom of information bill.

With the legislation due to come into force in May, state officials and organisations are rushing to comply with its demands.

The Access to Information Law enshrines in the constitution people's right to request information, for example how public bodies use public money, and receive a prompt response.

However, a growing online movement is already providing tools and resources for people to use to seek information and tackle the perennial problem of official corruption in Brazil.

A group of hackers has launched a site called Queremos Saber (We Want to Know).

Based on the same software as the FOI site in the UK called whatdotheyknow and its sister site AskTheEU, it provides a one-stop shop for the public to send questions directly to state officials.

Requests have already included inquiries about the monthly salary of federal members of congress and how this figure is arrived at.

While some of the information is already available online, it is often presented in a way which can be difficult to interpret.

"Traditionally, public information has been shrouded in obscurity. We wanted to make people understand that they have a right to this information, and to make the law a practical, everyday reality in society," said Queremos Saber founder Pedro Markun.

He says it is vital the public is mobilised to ensure that the access to information legislation is enforced.

If a public body is late or refuses to answer the request, that too will be posted on the site.

It is an ethos shared by mySociety, a British-based group behind the software that made possible.

"Sites like this force the law to have a much greater effect, since they invite others to help, offer comments, offer legal advice to tackle refusals, and suggest wording," said founder and director of Tom Steinberg.

However, moves to give the public greater access to official information has not been universally welcomed.

Growing protests

As Congress debated the proposed law, Senator Fernando Collor de Mello said the obligation would be a "kind of officialisation of WikiLeaks" and place an undue burden on government, undermining its efficiency and efficacy.

Mr Collor de Mello, who resigned as Brazilian president in 1992, argued that some sensitive information should remain secret.

The Senate finally opted to keep information about national security and other sensitive subjects confidential for a maximum of 25 years.

image captionCleaning up: Protesters made their views clear in September

The year 2011 was marked by protests against corruption in Brazil, including the arrival of 594 giant brooms at the Senate in September.

The brooms, representing each politician and painted in the green and yellow of Brazil's flag, were positioned there by a non-governmental organisation, Rio de Paz, to represent the need to clean up politics.

Corruption is said to cost the public purse R$84bn per year ($45bn; £30bn) according to research from the Sao Paulo industrialists' federation, Fiesp.

A lack of transparency regarding the financial workings of government and public bodies is believed to play a significant role.

Groups such as Transparency Brazil, an independent group founded in 2000, have long campaigned against corruption by collating information online on the voting and corruption history of politicians.

Open votes

Within the Senate, the Parliamentary Front in Defence of the Open Vote is seeking to change the constitution to make all votes open.

At present, the lower house and the Senate can vote in secret in some circumstances.

More than 280 deputies and senators have joined the campaign so far, but the proposal now goes to a second round where it must gain 308 votes in the Chamber of Deputies and 41 in the Senate.

The Front believes open votes would tackle corruption by making politicians more accountable to the public.

"Whenever international indicators about Brazil's level of corruption are disclosed, the image of Brazil abroad is damaged," said the Front's chairman, Ivan Valente.

"Ethics in politics is a universal value and we must continue this fight.

"But things will only change with pressure from the Brazilian people themselves, when they see that everyone is worse off when public money goes into private hands."

Monitoring groups will be keeping a close eye on how the access to information law is implemented.

President Rousseff and her government will also face international scrutiny to set a good example after she launched the Open Government Partnership with US President Barack Obama in New York in September.

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