Half a year ago I wrote about a historic week, the week of October 23rd. Brazil’s National Congress enacted a freedom of information law and a truth commission — two brave policy advances for a country marked by legacies of secrecy and authoritarianism. Today was a similarly historic day: the freedom of information law and the Truth Commission went into effect. President Dilma Rousseff struggled to hold back tears as she officially convened the Truth Commission.
Tearful Truth Commission Beginnings
A survivor of torture during Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship, Rousseff had until today refrained from emotional displays on the issue. The Truth Commission is not only a politically sensitive topic, but populist appeals for ‘truth’ or ‘revenge’ may rouse the ire of powerful ancien régime elements, giving Rousseff problems inside the Executive Branch and, legislatively, inside Congress. Today, the emotion could not be withheld. The video and an approximate transcript follow:
Brazil deserves the truth, the new generations deserve the truth, and above all, deserving of the truth are those who lost friends and family and who continue to suffer as if they die with every new day (tears and applause).
This is the most dramatic footage I have ever seen of President Dilma, and its authenticity and poignancy will undoubtedly help the President secure even greater popular support. Rousseff enjoys lofty approval ratings of 64 percent, according to the latest DataFolha polls.
Freedom of Information
I have been blitzed by requests for interviews about the freedom of information law lately, and over the last month I have spoken at three government events and been filmed four times. I have decided that I do not much like cameras for now and am beginning to sympathize with politicians who claim that the press often takes statements out of context. An interview I did for the O Globo newspaper misrepresented the interview, portraying solely the negative aspects of Brazil’s freedom of information infrastructure. Nonetheless, these last few months have provided me with a few tentative conclusions regarding the beginnings of Brazil’s freedom of information regime:
1. A lack of awareness and knowledge about the law is generalized, inside and outside of the public administration.
2. Most government officials are well-disposed towards the law, but have not devoted enough resources or attention to its implementation. According to personal government sources, the oversight body — The Comptroller General of the Union — has dedicated a team of 11 to the law. This is a long shot away from serious commitment in a country of two hundred million. Likewise, state and municipal governments are still trying to figure things out, and everyone from archivists, to administrators, to top officials have expressed their unpreparedness. While generalized ignorance and unpreparedness are lamentable, the willingness to be frank about that ignorance and to look for help provide hope.
3. Officials are worried about the “abuse” of the freedom of information law – a very common preoccupation, as any transparency advocate is well aware. This fear is what may also tip officials towards non-disclosure. Government control, whether in the form of encouraging a pliant press or ‘channeling’ participation through corporatist vehicles such as unions and government-civil society deliberative events, is part of the political culture. Freeing information means letting go. Simply put, if Brazil’s freedom of information law is going to work, this political culture must change.
This is a multi-generational project that has finally just begun.