The ability of the government of Mexico to lead the Open Government Partnership is now being questioned by multiple parties, leading to one of the most serious challenges for the international multilateral initiative since its historic launch in 2011. In January, civil society organizations demanded that the scope of the Open Government Partnership be expanded in Mexico. This week, a series of statements further heightened the tension.
On February 17th, the civil society organizations that participate in the Open Government Partnership in Mexico issued a serious warning regarding possible regressions on access to information:
In the upcoming days, the Mexican Senate is scheduled to vote for a General Transparency Law initiative that has been co-constructed in an unprecedented act of open parliament, where the voice of Civil Society was actively heard and incorporated.
However, this best practice of co-creation is being hindered by petition of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government; the modifications it proposes, above all, are contrary to the recent Constitutional Reform.
There are three main concerns with these modifications to the initiative. First and foremost, they will produce a great regression in what Mexico has gained regarding transparency and access to information; gains that the Civil Society and relevant stakeholders have pro-actively defended for the past twelve years.
Second, they blatantly weaken the Federal Institute for Access to Public Information and Data Protection (IFAI) by constraining its independence and authority.
Third, there are a series of small adjustments that limit the right of access to information and transparency, the obligations towards transparency and accountability of public servants, and broaden the number of criteria to withdraw information from the public and the number of years it must remain undisclosed.
Should this initiative pass with these modifications, the most likely scenario will be one where public servants will be able to act with no accountability, and with an extraordinary ease to wash their hands of any omission on their part.
On February 19th, Ana Cristina Rueles made an even stronger statement in an editorial at FreedomInfo.org, writing that “The government’s rhetoric is all about transparency and co-creation but in their offices they are pushing us backward, to opacity and zero accountability.” She also warned of the risks of regression on open government:
If these changes are approved they can lead us where we were on 2006 — before the recognition of the RTI principles in the Constitution and the Supreme Court criteria we have gained throughout these years — neutralizing the effects of the last Constitutional reform.
Therefore, I wonder how Mexico can still be the leader of the OGP if there is no willingness from the President’s Office to make a change and effectively guarantee RTI to all their citizens. I know OGP is not only about transparency and access to information and that it is supposed to solve particular problems. But no Action Plan can be completed with this limited legal framework. Mexican civil society organizations have sent a letter to the OGP protesting the government’s proposed changes (CSO letter in English and Spanish.)
The transparency and openness the government preaches is clearly just a display. In the past year, Mexico was involved in serious corruption issues related to the white house of the President’s wife and security issues for the forced disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa. The President responded by saying that transparency and openness would outline government actions from there on. However, there is plenty of difference between this momentum and the position of his legal advisor and his party who fight for regression.
These weeks are crucial for the General Law final approval. Senators are still negotiating changes and suppose to bring a final draft before the end of the month but timing is still unclear.
On February 21, the civil society co-chairs of the Open Government Partnership issued a statement responding to the serious concerns that have been raised.
Suneeta Kaimal and Alejandro González Arreola praised the recent record of the Mexican government on transparency, listing various advances since 2002, ending with the advancement of the reform law that has led to this moment.
“One of the most compelling features of these constitutional reforms is that they embraced an unprecedented process of open parliament,” they wrote. “Congress and civil society collaborated closely and the IFAI Commissioners were appointed in an open and public process. This same spirit of co-creation guided the elaboration of the General Transparency Law that regulates the application of the constitutional reform. The robust bill that was presented in December 2014 represented broad consensus among all key stakeholders.”
Kaimal and Arrelo ended the statement, however, by acknowledging the “expressions of deep concern” from Mexican civil society and the commissioners (PDF) of the Federal Institute for Access to Information and Data Protection (IFAI), an independent constitutional body in Mexico.
“As Civil Society Co-chairs of the Open Government Partnership, we share these concerns. We encourage the Mexican Government and Congress to seize this opportunity to re-confirm their proven record and commitment towards transparency, access to information and co-creation processes with civil society, as appropriate to their leadership of the OGP.”
What happens next is up to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. While he and his administration has wholeheartedly embraced the aspects of government that relate to digital government, open data and innovation, now they must demonstrate the commitment to social justice, press freedom and constitutional reform that the moment demands in order to retain credibility as the leader of this international initiative.
The words that President Peña delivered at the United Nations must now be matched by action.