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POLICY & REGULATION: Chile transparency law just a fig-leaf, says critic

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SOURCE: The Santiago Times, Chile

AUTHOR: El Mercurio, Chile, by Ashley Pandya


DATE:   24.08.2007

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(Aug. 24, 2007) Government spokesman Ricardo Lagos Weber announced Wednesday that Chile will soon have a new law guaranteeing citizen access to information. While this may appear to be good news to some, critics of the legislation doubt the law Lagos praised will be very effective.

”Chile is pushing for the new transparency law as part of its bid to join the prestigious Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD),” said critic Miguel Fredes, an environmental attorney who is suing Chile’s government to get access to public papers. ”But if the law is passed as it now stands, the holes and ambiguities in it could benefit both the government and large corporations by giving them transparency in name, but not in practice.”

According to Fredes, the law concerns four broad areas: civil society, which has been unsuccessfully requesting information for years; private corporations, which would be like the façade of transparency without the corresponding obligations; the government, which approves of the law but does not want to be subject to it; and the judicial branch, which wants to keep some information secret.

”The law creates a Transparency Board, but the chief of the Board, who will oversee the law’s provisions, will be appointed by the president without consent of the Senate,” Fredes told the Santiago Times. ”This means the chief will have very little political independence and that others will be reluctant to challenge him.”

Fredes also said the bill allows third parties (i.e. corporations) to refuse information requested by an applicant by arguing their trade secrets and intellectual property could be violated.

Fredes first became interested in Chile’s transparency and public access policies when he requested the names of the companies producing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the locations where the GMOs were growing.

”The government refused to give me the information, saying that the names could harm the interest and the secret business policies of the GMO companies,” said Fredes. ”Names and locations are not intellectual property – if I am an organic farmer, I should have the right to know where GMOs are being grown.”

”The information that we would like to make public is already in the hands of public agencies, so clearly the information is not harmful to Chile’s national interest,” added Fredes. ”There is already plenty of legislation that protects trade secrets and intellectual property, so that is not the issue.”

Fredes sued and won the case. A national association of GMO producers appealed the case, which is now being reviewed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The decision could be monumental - this case is the first of its kind to be determined by an international body.

Fredes has proposed a number of amendments to the legislation, including the requirement that public bodies conform to obligations of the law and the creation of a single working definition of the word ”information.”

”There are a number of serious shortcomings in the draft which threaten to defeat the original objective,” said Fredes. ”I do not think this law will pass or be approved this year.”



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