Fernando Rodrigues is one of Brazil’s leading journalists, and an innovator in the field of unlocking public information. He writes for Folha de São Paulo, the largest paper in the country, and is currently serving as a Nieman fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
Rodrigues offers some context on Brazil and internet usage in the country, reminding us that the nation is one of the world’s largest democracies, with 186 million citizens, 42.6 of whom are connected to the Internet. Brazilians represent 46.3% of all South American Internet users. The nation is aggresively embracing the use of digital technology in politics – voting in Brazil is 100% electronic, with no paper balloting, and the government is ranked 13th internationally on an e-government survey from Brown University.
At the same time, Internet penetration in Brazil is quite low by the standards of developed nations, with 22.4% of the population connected. And while Brazil has full democracy and a free and vibrant media, it has no freedom of information law, which is critically important for journalists trying to investigate government stories. And while Brazil’s egovernment initiatives are being recognized internationally, Rodrigues raises a distinction between quantity and quality of e-government efforts.
Rodrigues was the founder of a critically important project in the world of Brazilian transparency – Politicos do Brasil. The site lists information on 25,000 political candidates in Brazil who’ve registered since 2000. This information includes critical financial data. Brazilian politicians are required to submit a statement of “patrimony”, their personal assets, which are a matter of public record, but are very difficult for citizens to obtain. Those records have been digitized, or hand entered, and are now accessible for all the users of the site. During the 2006 elections, the site registered 1 million visits in a single day.
The site was funded by Rodrigues’s paper, Folha de São Paulo, which saw it as a powerful tool for computer assisted reporting. While it’s been a resource for the paper, it’s been at least as powerful for competing newspapers, especially for small regional newspapers. Folha focuses primarily on national stories, but a regional paper might focus on the finances of a local politician.
This led to a story, for instance, in O Globo about the former governor of Mranhão state, in the northeast of the country, who reported personal assets of about $250,000, but purchased a penthouse for $1.5 million dollars. Investigation of his finances led to his jailing on charges of tax evasion. Across Brazil, the assets of politicians have increased 41.8% over the course of a four-year election cycle, which vastly outpaces the 3-4% rate of annual inflation in Brazil… which suggests that either that Brazilian politicians are amazingly astute investors, or that there’s continuing political corruption in Brazil.
The success of this project is a strong argument for laws that increase governmental transparency in Brazil. According to Rodrigues, the Brazilian constitution mandates a right of access to information, but there’s no law that mandates this access. He’s now working with the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalists, an organization inspired in part by the US organization Investigative Reporters and Editors, to build a movement towards a freedom of information law in Brazil. ABRAJI is now one of the leading partners in a coalition of 18 organizations supporting this law, along with 15 congressmen from different parties.
The above map, from Privacy International, shows countries that have FOIA laws (in green), pending legislation (in light green) and movements towards FOIA laws (in yellow). It’s worth noting that many developing nations don’t yet have a movement towards FOIA acts – it’s very difficult for journalists to break certain stories on their governments without the legal ability to obtain key documents through legal channels. Before you can build online transparency systems, you’ve got to have ways of obtaining key pieces of information from your government.
In questions after his talk, Persephone Miel pointed out that the Politicos do Brazil project put online 25,000 CPF numbers, the Brazilian equivalent of social security numbers. Miel wondered whether there were privacy concerns from releasing this much personal information online. Rodrigues explained that he’d put a formal question to the Brazilian supreme court asking whether a newspaper or web site could do this. The response: politicians, as public figures, should expect that newspapers and websites could release public information on their fiscal status, including CPF numbers. Not only does the Politicos site make the CPF numbers, they include a tutorial which helps citizens look up a politician’s tax returns based on their CPF number.
I asked two questions – who are these resources for? Are sites like this primarily for journalists and civil society organizations, or for citizens at large? Rodrigues explained that the site gets heavily used by citizens immediately before elections, but generally is a resource for journalists. However, he believes that government information is nearly always demanded by journalists first, then by civil society and the general public after FOIA laws become well established.
My second question asked whether these transparency efforts had helped reduce corruption in Brazil. I mentioned that Transparency International, which publishes an annual index of “perception of corruption” that ranks Brazil as corrupt as China and India. Rodrigues is highly critical of TI’s methodology, suggesting that the reporting of corruption in Brazil both helps make the country less corrupt, but may increase the perception of corruption in Brazil in the short term. He’s a supporter of Global integrity, a new project designed to measure corruption and government effectiveness through the synthesis of over a hundred factors. The hope is that the results are more objective than TI’s thoroughly subjective index. “Our reporting might give the impression that every politician in Brazil is a thief. Actually, the standards for Brazilian politicians are as good as many other countries, but we’re transparent about our corruption, which might be dragging down our international perceptions.”