MEXICO CITY -- Mexico in recent years has made significant progress in correcting authorities’ traditional practice of hiding information from the public.
Availing themselves of a relatively new freedom-of-information law, journalists and ordinary citizens have been able to learn facts that the government sought to hide -- from homicide statistics to what the first lady spends on her wardrobe.
But this week, Congress was poised to change the law governing the Federal Institute for Access to Information, or IFAI, in ways that critics say will gut the public’s ability to gain access to important, sometimes sensitive, material.
In discussions held largely behind closed doors, congressional committees approved a provision that would allow the Supreme Court to review and potentially overturn any decision by the IFAI. As it stands now, the institute receives petitions from citizens, reviews the request and then, if in agreement, orders the target of the petition to disclose the information sought.
The new rules, however, would allow those targets to appeal to the Supreme Court. Critics say that favors the presidency and other branches of government over the little guy, who would have to hire lawyers and fight a protracted legal battle.
“In practice, this means that authorities can stall and ultimately deny releasing information to the public,” a coalition of “pro-transparency” and human rights groups said in a statement. “This would be a major setback in the democratic development of this country.”
Some opponents also see the move as another indication of the return to government of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, with its reputation for secrecy and loyal discipline -- despite President Enrique Peña Nieto’s campaign promises to lead a “transparent” administration.
“This seriously calls into question President Peña Nieto’s words,” Sen. Laura Rojas of the opposition National Action Party said in a news conference Tuesday.
She and several members of her conservative party lashed out against the changes and threatened to try to block them. The Congress’ full lower House of Deputies must still approve the new rules, a vote likely to come this week.
Initially, the reforms received praise because for the first time they sought to require political parties and unions to also submit to the IFAI's jurisdiction. Neither parties nor unions have been held accountable for the millions of dollars they routinely spend, an arrangement that has led to widespread corruption and vote-buying scandals.
But once it became clear that the Supreme Court was being given final say, critics began to express anger and dismay. Authorities would be allowed to appeal the IFAI’s rulings under a “broad and ambiguous” set of “exceptions,” such as national security or economic stability, that the critics said could be too easily cited to undercut the federal information institute’s authority.
Rep. Manlio Fabio Beltrones, head of the PRI faction in the House, defended the changes to the IFAI as a way to strengthen it by giving it more autonomy. But critics said autonomy that can be overruled is meaningless.
In a news conference Tuesday, Guillermo Ortega, director of one of the transparency groups, Sonora Citizen, said the reforms represented “a sham” that would render the institution “toothless.” Investigative journalists also complained that they would be deprived of a crucial tool in their work.
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