Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Americas Extra

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Americas Extra

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After seven decades of government conducted in secrecy, Mexico acts to set a new standard in transparency

An old political joke from the days of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) illustrates the ingrained cynicism Mexicans have for their government:

At a national assembly of the PRI, a voice suddenly booms out, "Swindler, bribe-taker, corrupt scum, thief!"

One delegate says to another, "Who's the one that guy is shouting all those insults at?"

His companion replies, "Those aren't insults -- he's just taking roll call."

With his election in 2000, President Vicente Fox ended seven decades of PRI rule and promised to end the nation's endemic corruption, settle the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, and open the workings of government to public scrutiny. Two years later, Fox has failed to deliver on the first two promises, but he's making believers out of cynics with his transparency policies.

Facing a PRI-dominated Legislature so truculent it once took the unheard-of step of refusing his routine request to travel abroad, Fox nevertheless in April persuaded the House and Senate to pass unanimously a national Freedom of Information (FOI) law that in some ways is better than its U.S. equivalent. The law directs agencies to choose access over secrecy, lays out a simple method to request information, and, in a clause especially important in Mexico, prohibits the government under any circumstances from withholding information about gross human-rights violations.

The law also establishes something called positiva ficta: Not responding to a request means the agency has accepted it -- and must release the information on an expedited basis, said Kate Doyle, director of the Mexico Project for the nonprofit National Security Archive in Washington. …

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