Indiana University

Indiana University Journalism

Fargo reports on Chilean public information, transparency law

fargo in santiago
Photo courtesy Veronica Husch, American Embassy, Santiago
From left, Carolina Fuentes, CNN Chile; associate professor Anthony Fargo; Pedro Ramirez, CIPER, an independent investigative journalism organization; Andres Sherman, journalist and professor at University Diego Portales; and Mariana Merino, the moderator and a staffer with the Council for Transparency, attended the conference in Santiago.
Associate professor Anthony Fargo visited Santiago and Concepcion, Chile, the week of April 18 on a trip arranged and funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs, the American Embassy in Santiago and the Chilean Council for Transparency.

He spoke to groups of students and/or professors at five universities in Santiago and Concepcion and to groups of journalists in both cities. He was a speaker at a workshop on “Journalism and Access to Public Information” with three Chilean journalists at the International Seminar on Transparency as Modernization of the State: Experiences, Key Actors and Challenges, sponsored by the Council for Transparency.

At the university and media stops, he joined in discussions on the law and ethics of news gathering in the United States; the protection of confidential sources; controversies over anonymity on the Internet; and the tension between reporting the news and privacy.

Here are some of his observations from the trip:
  • At two of the universities, students asked me how Americans could believe the press was “free” when it was dependent on advertising. This led to some interesting discussions about the American conception of freedom as defined by freedom from government and a more complicated conception of freedom in a place where government has been both benefactor and oppressor to varying degrees in the recent past.

  • Both students and journalists were amazed and a little bothered by the amount of intimate information that American journalists report about celebrities and public officials. The bar for what is “fair game” is a bit higher in Chile.

  • Chile’s Transparency Law, its version of the Freedom of Information Act, is only two years old but is gaining widespread, if perhaps reluctant, acceptance among agencies and officials. FOIA and the state access laws in the United States only require what the Chileans would call “passive transparency” – if you want a record, you can go ask for it. Chile’s law also requires “active transparency” – it requires agencies to make certain information, including salaries of employees, available on websites. The council reported that it had gained 94 percent compliance with active transparency.

  • I was a little puzzled when I saw that speakers for the opening panel discussion included a representative from the World Bank and a representative from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. But opening remarks by Huguette Labelle, president of Transparency International, cleared it up for me.

    In the United States, we tend to view access to government information as a good in itself and a necessary component of democracy. Labelle and the speakers from the OECD and the World Bank see it as an antidote to official corruption, or the perception of corruption. This is also why the conference was called “Transparency as Modernization of the State.” Chile and the other Latin American and developing world countries see strong transparency laws as ways to bring their countries into the modern age and persuade other countries that they have shaken off abuses of the past. I had never thought of access laws as economic development tools before.

  • I found it encouraging and interesting that President Sebastian Pinera attended the opening of the seminar and spoke about the importance of transparency. (I had one anxious moment when he used a quote that also was in my prepared remarks for that evening, from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is often the best disinfectant; the electric light the best policeman.” I worked his use of the quote into my remarks. Pinera is a Harvard grad, as was Brandeis, so I shouldn’t have been surprised.)

  • One topic at the seminar was how to construct indices of transparency – in other words, how do you measure the degree of transparency? Ana Bellver from the World Bank said the bank had developed some measures and also was working on a transparency policy for itself.

  • At the workshop at which I spoke on American press experiences with FOIA, the other speakers were all Chilean journalists and educators. I was struck by how similar their stories about frustrations with using the Chilean Transparency Law were to stories I hear in the United States all the time about FOIA and state access laws: agencies unsure about what the law requires, slow responses to requests, and agencies responding at times with too much data, making it hard to analyze.

    Carolina Fuentes of CNN Chile talked about teaching classes at two university journalism programs and assigning students to use the law to gather data and produce a story. Nearly all of the students had trouble getting the data they sought in a timely way, but a group exploring how a disaster relief agency in Concepcion, which was hit by an earthquake last year, had spent its money responded quickly – with 4 gigabytes of data. The students were able to sift through it eventually and found that the agency rarely sought bids for food and other supplies and often was overcharged for what it needed.