Transparency in Mexico: Information doesn't come easily(Read article summary)
In Mexico it can be a long, frustrating pursuit for members of civil society or journalists to get even basic information from the government, despite an institution created to make it easier.
A decade after Mexico created its Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI), civil society has more access to information on the federal governmentâ€™s activities than ever before.
President-elect Enrique PeĂ±a Nieto â€“ whose campaign was marred by accusations of vote buying and corruption â€“ has proposed extending transparency requirements to state and local governments. He is pushing, too, for an anti-corruption panel and a citizen-led agency to oversee government spending.
On Thursday night, Mexicoâ€™s seven-member Federal Electoral Tribunal ruled unanimously to dismiss a complaint that this summer's election was marred by fraud, clearing the way for Mr. PeĂ±a Nieto to assume the presidency on Dec. 1.
Yet the reality for members of Mexicoâ€™s civil society, journalists, or just concerned citizens? Getting basic information from the government in a timely manner can be a dogged, frustrating pursuit.
Much like in the United States, most government agencies here have a department dedicated to public and media relations; in Mexico itâ€™s called â€śsocial communication.â€ť Unlike in the US, however, that department often throws up barriers to retrieving information, rather than facilitating its distribution.
One secretary leads to another. And another.
There are numerous informal ways to slow the access to information, regardless of what the law says. Thatâ€™s where the IFAI can step in and help â€“Â although how far that help goes is a matter of how long one is willing to wait.
In a recent case posted publicly on the IFAI website per the instituteâ€™s policy, someone asked the Mexican Navy how many people, of any rank or job type, had been dismissed for colluding with organized crime since 2006. When a Navy communications officer responded with a link to the Navyâ€™s web page, which didnâ€™t contain the requested information, the person asked IFAI to step in. IFAI evaluated the request and resolved that the Navy must perform an â€śexhaustive investigationâ€ť to provide the requested information.
The whole rigmarole took roughly three months â€“ and the information still hadnâ€™t been provided.
The government also makes overt decisions to restrict information.
President Felipe CalderĂłnâ€™s administration decided to stop publishing data on the countryâ€™s crime-related homicides earlier this year. In fact, the National Public Security System (SNSP), which is under the administrationâ€™s control, last released statistics on the death toll from the fight against organized crime in September 2011.
Jaime Lopez Aranda, who heads up the SNSP, told Mexicoâ€™s Reforma newspaper that the statistics were a â€śfailed experiment.â€ť Categorizing murders by organized crime, he said, â€śdeeply undermines criminal procedure.â€ť
Itâ€™s true that the statistics werenâ€™t perfect. And itâ€™s arguable that defining what is and isnâ€™t a homicide related to organized crime should be decided by the courts rather than by approximations (in Mexicoâ€™s case, whether a high-powered firearm was used, whether the body showed signs of torture, etc.).
Yet itâ€™s also true that itâ€™s convenient for CalderĂłnâ€™s government not to report those numbers, given that the death toll in the administrationâ€™s fight against organized crime continues to mount.
â€śThe government does have political reasons for not making its tally of organized-crime-related murders public,â€ť writes InSight Crime analyst Elyssa Pachico. â€śDoing so could fuel further criticism that the human costs of Calderon's security strategy far outweigh the perceived benefits.â€ť
Expanding the reach of the IFAI will strengthen the publicâ€™s right to freedom of information. How the government takes on the responsibility of providing it is another matter.