Corruption, a lack of knowledge and a lack of data make it hard for Guatemalans to access information. Ángel Ramírez from Congreso Transparente is aiming to create more transparency and promote dialogue.
Congreso Transparente is a Guatemalan non-governmental organization that is committed to the principles of open government and promotes transparency and government accountability. The goal of Congreso Transparente is to inform the public about activities in the Guatemalan legislature - how members of Congress vote, for example, or whether an individual member opposes or supports a specific law. Ángel Ramírez is the NGO's executive director. Prior to joining Congreso Transparente, he was a consultant for a member of the legislature.
Congreso Transparente aims to act as a bridge between Congress and the public. Can you explain what that means?
Ángel Ramírez: We see ourselves as a kind of "information bridge" that helps people understand the role of Congress as well as what's happening in politics. We want people to be able to form their own opinions about political issues, so we do our best to ensure that the information we provide is impartial and objective. We don't want to influence people in any way.
That being said, because we primarily act as a bridge for the information, we can't guarantee that it's always true. But we can create a space where people can debate and assess Congress-related issues.
Why is having access to information so important?
One of the responsibilities of a public institution is to disclose how it spends public money, because it is the taxpayer after all, who finances the system. It's also important for people to understand that if they can access information, it can help change their lives.
What are the major obstacles to accessing information?
One is that people often have no idea where they can request information, and many institutions don't have a contact person or an office where the public can actually go to do this. Fear is also a major factor, because people are often afraid of receiving threats.
Information about Congress is scattered and complicated to access, because the departments are incredibly inefficient. Certain political issues are also off-limits because they involve information about major corruption scandals and are kept classified.
There are also problems at the local government level. Here, data aren’t always available because they simply don't exist. Either they weren’t collected or they weren’t stored. Criminal political structures can also hinder access to information.
Guatemala introduced a freedom of information law in 2008. How has it been implemented so far?
This law aroused strong emotions right from the start. It was adopted in response to a corruption scandal in which 82 million quetzals (approximately 9.5 million Euros) somehow disappeared from the legislature. When the law was passed, institutions suddenly had to provide information but didn't have the necessary tools to do this.
At this point, I think it’s an extremely weak law because only the human rights commissioner can push for implementation. However if the law is violated, there's no department or unit that can impose sanctions. While the human rights ombudswoman can make a moral judgment, she can’t do anything beyond that.
To what extent are people interested in requesting information?
There wasn’t that much interest until last year, when people came out to protest the government corruption scandal. But they still haven't really internalized the concept. The demonstrators were simply looking for the quickest and easiest way to find out what was happening.
If we want the law to carry any authority, we need to strengthen and institutionalize the legal process we use to achieve that goal. We can’t just go up and say, "Hey, we want this bit of information and that one as well!" Instead we have to take one legitimate step at a time so that the law has a solid foundation.
What needs to happen in Guatemala to improve people’s access to information?
There has to be an authority that not only monitors the situation but that can also intervene and impose sanctions. There also have to be units or departments where people can go to request information on specific topics. And finally, the people themselves need to understand just how important access to information really is.
What advice do you have for people wanting to request information?
First, that you have to be really persistent when trying to access information because politicians often withhold it, either for legitimate reasons or because they haven't a clue about the processes involved in making it available. The more people request information, the faster things will begin to change.
It's also a good idea to get the human rights ombudswoman on board, because she's a good ally to have. That applies to the media as well. Get in touch with them and demand that they report on the events and issues, because in the end it's often the journalists who find out why something has been labeled as classified.
The interview was conducted by Vera Freitag and shortened for clarity.
With DW Akademie support, the NGO will be expanding its projects to include local Guatemalan governments. The "Munis Transparentes" project ("Transparent Communities") gets underway this year.