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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Organization renews demand for access to information law in Venezuela despite polarized political climate



Access to public information in Venezuela is a guarantee established in the country’s Constitution. However, in reality, if a journalist or citizen wants to know the salary of a public official or the amount of money spent during an electoral campaign, for example, the response in many cases will range from “we don’t know” to “we cannot respond.”

Acceso a la Justicia’s report found that the country’s judiciary is creating obstacles to limit access to information. (Screenshot)

Making the situation even worse, the country’s judiciary is creating some of the main obstacles limiting access to information, according to a recent study from Venezuelan non-governmental organization Acceso a la Justicia (Access to Justice).

In response, and in spite of the current political situation in the country, the organization has called on Venezuela’s legislature to pass the Law on Transparency, Disclosure and Access to Public Information to ensure that State institutions can be monitored and scrutinized.

Acceso a la Justicia looked at 76 cases in which access to information was denied by various government institutions and then taken to the Supreme Court (TSJ) for appeal. Seventy-two of these cases, or 95 percent, were decided in favor of the State.

“From the analysis of 76 sentences, it was shown that the Venezuelan judiciary, mainly through the TSJ, has created restrictions on access to public information, thus ignoring the role of the public comptroller and control of public management,” according to the report.

This approach, according to the organization, violates standards established by international human rights courts and organizations and global trends toward transparency and open data.

The study highlights that some of the excuses used by government institutions to deny access to data seem to indicate that requests for information are "a kind of annoyance that unnecessarily overloads the busy officials."

An emblematic case considered in the study is a request for information about the salary of the Comptroller General of the Republic, which was denied. The Supreme Court ruled that "it should be considered whether the compensation of the Comptroller [..] was publicly available information or was part of the right to privacy of officials and, as such, there was no obligation to provide it."

Another representative case is that of a denied petition asking the President of the Republic to explain the constant change of ministers in his Cabinet. The TSJ's response was that the President was "too busy to respond to the request" and that those functions of removing and appointing ministers were aimed at increasing the efficiency of the State, Acceso a la Justicia published on its site.

Acceso a la Justicia indicated that the average time it takes the judiciary to decide on cases of requests for information is 325 days, although some cases take more than 400 days to resolve.

Despite the fact that citizens and organizations have resorted to different legal methods in their attempts to obtain public information, the study concluded that in Venezuela there is no legal recourse to access this information in an effective, expeditious and simple manner, which could be in violation of the State’s obligation to guarantee that right.

According to the organization, there seems to be an unwritten rule for public officials to maintain total opacity.

Access to information managed by the Venezuelan government is essential for civil society, but spaces of the State are closed in the eyes of citizens, the report says. "The role of society as comptroller to combat corruption is an uphill battle and the environment of impunity prevails, protected by information opacity.”

It’s in this light that Acceso a la Justica called for the Law on Transparency, Disclosure and Access to Public Information to be taken up once more by the National Assembly.

According to newspaper El Universal, this bill was already approved in an initial discussion in March 2016, but has not progressed to the second. Added to this is the fact that in January 2016, the Supreme Court Venezuela declared the opposition-led National Assembly in "contempt" for alleged electoral irregularities, so that all its decisions would be considered null and void.

And now, the National Assembly is under threat of a new National Constituent Assembly –aligned with the government of President Nicólas Maduro – that was established after widely contested elections held on July 31. Given this political situation, Acceso a la Justicia is aware that the adoption of this law is unlikely in the short term.

"We have an Assembly that is fighting for its survival right now," Ali Daniels, coordinator at Acceso a la Justicia, told the Knight Center. "Currently, its leadership runs the risk of being detained at any moment by the arbitrariness of the National Constituent Assembly, which has already said in different ways that it will get rid of parliamentary immunity."

Laws concerning access to information are not among the National Assembly’s priorities, Daniels explained.

"The first condition for the access to information laws to move forward is to restore respect for the decisions of the National Assembly, that what the Assembly says is respected because it is an elected body," Daniels said. "From there, it is necessary that the TSJ refrain from acting politically and act legally. With these two circumstances, the law would have the conditions to be enacted."



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