Thursday, April 16, 2009

Freedom of Information Arrives in Guatemala, April 21

Starting on April 21, anyone interested in government information, including service delivery costs and number and salaries of government officials, and more, may apply to the appropriate public entity and obtain the information. On April 21 the "Law on Free Access to Information" will go into effect. The law was adopted in September 2008 and marks the beginning of a process to ensure transparency in Guatemala, as long as officials comply with the provisions of the law.

The executive branch has had seven months to prepare but not all institutions are ready. Execution of the law is overseen by a Deputy Minister of Transparency.

Three major institutions are nearly ready: Superintendency of Tax Administration (SAT), Superintendency of Banks, Bank of Guatemala (Banguat), and the Controller General of Accounts are 90 percent ready to comply with the new law.

Other ministries and secretariats of the executive branch are about 70 percent ready. Some municipalities and autonomous and decentralized entities are not ready.

Among these groups, institutions like the Ministry of Health and the University of San Carlos are having difficulties in the process. Seminars and trainings are being offered by the government to help the process along.

In a survey conducted by Prensa Libre, it was found that the municipalities are much weaker in the implementation of the new legislation, to the point that some mayors are unaware of the new law.

"We do not know how. The truth is that we do not know how to operate," said Carlos Alfredo Cahuec, mayor of Ixcán Playa Grande, Quiche. The mayor said that while his community has the information in order, he stated that it is necessary that training be given to mayors across the country.

Some mayors are concerned about the use which might be made of the information, for extortion or political interests.

According to ANAM, of the country's 333 municipalities, only the metro (Guatemala City) has implemented a reporting unit. Santa Catarina and Pinula Fraijanes are in the process of doing so. The rest have not reported progress.

Institutions like the Supreme Electoral Court, Congress, the Ministerio Publico, and the Office of Human Rights (PDH), among others, have signed agreements with institutions such as Citizen Action (AC) to obtain advice on the implementation of the new requirements.

Alejandro Urizar, of Citizen Action, said that all subjects are required to publish information, including private entities, including NGOs and trusts. This will create setbacks in implementing the law.

"One of the big challenges is that all organizations must be able to publish a web site starting on April 21," he said.

The new regulations include administrative or criminal penalties for those who do not meet the established requirements and to imprisonment for people who attempt to market data.

Requesting Information

To request information, citizens may do so orally, in writing, or electronically, through an information unit.

If the requested data are included in the set of data that the entities should have in view then it should be delivered immediately. If additional searching is required, the entity shall have 10 days to respond with the information.

The Attorney General has the responsibility to monitor and deliver civil or criminal sanctions in case of failure to comply with these regulations.

Sergio Morales, attorney with the PDH, said his institution is prepared to fulfill its obligations but warned that it needs more budget.

Meanwhile, Carlos Barreda said that the first step is the implementation of the law. Then other proposals may emerge to improve processes, which may involve the creation of a regulator with more powers.

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