BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has signed a freedom of information law - intended to attack widespread corruption that is abetted by decades of conflict and the cocaine trade - by making government, the public sector and contracting processes more transparent.
In Colombia’s effort to cast its net wider to combat graft, this new law guarantees all citizens a right to information on how public funds are spent and broadens the number and type of public and government bodies that come under the law.
“Information is a right not a privilege,” Santos said during the signing of the law at the presidential palace in Bogota last week. “For that reason, citizens now do not have to approach the government to ask for information but rather the state will now be obliged to provide it.”
Under the Transparency and Access to Information law, all levels of government - including state entities, political parties, civil society groups, companies and individuals who have government contracts, chambers of commerce, public health service providers and universities - will now have to provide clear records on how public funds are spent and divulge information of public interest to citizens upon request.
Such a law can help prevent and stem corruption because it allows citizens to hold state entities and elected officials to account by tracking how public funds are spent at the local and national level.
“This law marks an important step, giving citizens more tools to monitor public funding. The law unifies and amalgamates previous laws into one, while clarifying which institutions need to make records public and submit information,” Andrea Benavides, head of Ocasa, a Colombian anti-graft youth watchdog told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The law, which will be phased in gradually this year, brings Colombia in line with other countries in Latin America - including Mexico, Chile and more recently Brazil - where access to information laws have been passed in recent years.
ROYALTIES SIPHONED OFF
Colombia comes in at 94th in Transparency International's 2013 index ranking 177 countries according to perceived levels of public sector corruption, with number one being the least corrupt.
Decades of drug trafficking and a weak state presence in Colombia’s conflict-ridden provinces have provided a fertile breeding ground for corruption in one of the world's biggest cocaine producing countries.
One corruption hotspot is the squandering of royalties paid by international oil and mining companies to operate in Colombia's resource-rich provinces, which amount to billions of dollars every year, Benavides said.
Too often royalties earmarked to build new schools, hospitals and roads, especially in rural and jungle provinces, are siphoned off and or misused, she said.
Access to information laws also prevents those with privileged access to information to demand bribes from people seeking public records. The new law should change that.
“It should be harder for an official to illegally charge for information requested by a citizen because information is now a fundamental right,” Benavides said.
Ocasa was one of five Colombian non-governmental organisations, including the national chapter of Transparency International, Transparency for Colombia, which lobbied lawmakers for five years to draft the access to information law and get it passed.
The big challenge now is putting the law into practice.
“The hard work is just beginning. The way this law needs to be implemented has not yet been fully worked out,” said Benavides. “Awareness needs to be raised among those who need to submit information and among journalists and citizens about how to go about accessing information.”
Ensuring Colombia’s new access to information law is complied with was echoed in the local media.
“This triumph of civil society cannot be left on paper. The entities in charge with regulating, applying the guarantees and putting in place this law must put their foot on the accelerator so that those obliged to submit information comply with the law from the first day it comes into effect,” Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper said in a recent editorial.
LIFTING VEIL OF SECRECY
The transparency law could help tackle corruption in Colombia’s military and lift the veil of secrecy surrounding multimillion-dollar military procurement contracts, the editorial said.
In February, Colombia was rocked by two major corruption scandals involving allegations that senior army officers received huge kickbacks on military procurement contracts and alleged illegal wiretapping, which led to one of the biggest purges of the military leadership since 2008.
“The recent events show that the military cannot be untouchable as they so expect to be. The scandals over the alleged wiretapping and the supposed corruption in army contracts are proof that secrecy, which has governed these types of institutions, has only meant that many things turn out badly,” the editorial said.