Civil society commends advances in the right to know; raises concerns over new national security exemptions
On November 20, 2013, Mexico’s senate passed new reforms to the country’s transparency system, approving modifications and establishing greater autonomy for the country’s information oversight body – the Federal Institute for Access to Information and Protection of Data (IFAI).
After a process that lasted more than a year and involved significant amendments, revisions, and intense public debate involving civil society, Mexico’s senators approved the initiative with 83 votes in favor and six against the new measures to advance the transparency system. Importantly, the constitutional reforms extend the Federal Transparency Law to include for the first time unions, companies, political parties, and any organization that receives public resources, allowing for citizens to send information requests directly to these bodies. The amendments also enhance the autonomy of IFAI, and improve transparency at the state level.
Open government advocates have been deeply involved in pushing for the reforms, and recognize the passage as a significant step in strengthening the transparency processes by expanding the authority of IFAI and establishing greater autonomy for the oversight body. However, civil society groups have also raised concerns that the changes could limit the powers of IFAI by allowing appeals of its decisions that relate to national security, which could lead to greater secrecy by security and intelligence agencies.
IFAI resolutions are generally the final ruling in cases challenging information requests; however, the reforms include an exception that allows for the possibility for the judicial council of the executive branch (Consejero Jurídico del Ejecutivo Federal) to intervene and challenge before the Supreme Court (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación – SCJN) IFAI resolutions that order the disclosure of records that contain sensitive national security information. Civil society organizations caution that this measure could be used as a tool to limit public access to information on security matters and hinder public participation in debates over national security policies.
The concerns by open government advocates come at a time of growing efforts to ensure state authorities maintain a balance between disclosing and reserving information dealing with national security matters. The importance of establishing this equilibrium is emphasized in the Global Principles on National Security and the Right to Information – recently developed by 22 civil society organizations and academic centers, in consultation with more than 500 experts from more than 70 countries, and facilitated by the Open Society Justice Initiative. These Principles emphasize that excessive appeals to national security arguments serve to undermine fundamental guarantees against government abuses and highlight the critical need for independent oversight bodies to guarantee the right to access information held by the state that is of high public interest. The Principles also hold that access to information is a key element to prevent abuses by public authorities and permit democratic participation in the formulation of public policies that respect international laws and standards. As we have seen in the current debate over surveillance and national security, transparency is essential to limit abuses of authority.
Ana Cristína Ruelas of Article 19 – an organization that has been deeply involved in ensuring the reforms uphold international standards in the right to truth – contends that “while the reforms provide a lot of positive new tools for promoting transparency, there are still areas that need improvement,” adding “I would consider this as only the first step in an ongoing process.”