Transparency laws mean nothing if they are not applied, and it sometimes takes brave citizens and active civil society organisations to make sure that they are.
In El Salvador, the anti-corruption legal advice centre operated by FUNDE, our chapter in the country, is just over a year-and-a-half old and has already made a name for itself as an organisation fighting for a key piece of the transparency puzzle – access to information.
An information request to the president’s office has already led to increased public discussion about the way in which political leaders can use public funds at their discretion in El Salvador, an issue which had traditionally been seen as off limits. The media coverage of the case is also motivating more citizens to approach the centre to seek information about the funds used by other public officials.
In early 2014, the centre asked the information office of the presidency to release basic information regarding trips taken by the former president and former first lady, as well as internal audits, details on visits by international dignitaries to El Salvador and details on advertising spending by the presidency.
The information requested included the names of members of the committees travelling with the former president, the cost of air tickets, and the duration and destination of trips.
Information like this is important because it sheds light on an area of government where significant spending can go unseen.
Access denied, but fight goes on
The presidency refused to release this information, arguing that it could present a security risk to the current president. This refusal came despite the centre having requested data on past rather than future trips, and that it had not requested any data on security plans to be made public.
In December 2014, following an appeal and a public hearing, the authorities of El Salvador’s Institute for Access to Public Information largely sided with the presidency and ruled this information should stay classified.
Although there was a partial victory for transparency in that other information requested by the centre was declassified, including internal audits of the presidency, the institute only ordered the release of overall annual figures on funds spent by the presidency on advertising.
If the Access to Information Institute sticks to its decision to restrict citizens’ access to information about such presidential expenditure, the centre will take this fight to the Constitutional Court, which in previous cases has ruled in favour of transparency.
Read this blog in Spanish here.
Carousel image: Copyright, Flickr / Colin Kinner