In 2004 the Mexico City newspaper, El Universal, sparked a shake-up like no other at Los Pinos, Mexico’s White House. It reported that then-Mexican President Vicente Fox’s wife, Marta Sahagún, plunked down up to $1,000 on dresses during a one-day shopping spree, and that Fox himself spent the same amount on suits. Not an unreasonable amount, perhaps, to spend on keeping a national leader and his wife presentable, but in Mexico, where over half the population lives on less than $4 a day, it provided juicy material for the political opposition and the press, who promptly skewered Mexico’s First Couple for frivolous spending. A scandal over a First Lady’s wardrobe tab would have been unthinkable just a decade ago, but a Mexican government freedom-of-information initiative introduced in 2003 to make once-private government data available upon request is slowly changing that country’s political landscape.
Welcome to politics in Latin America’s information age.
The veil over Latin America’s political secrets is lifting across the region, as an increasing number of wired citizens create blogs that post everything from news of upcoming street protests to simple spaces for unfiltered debate.
Some of the toughest tests faced by the region’s politicians in recent years have been posed by journalists taking advantage of the wealth of public information now available on the Web. In Mexico, the three-year-old Federal Institute of Access to Public Information (IFAI) provides for the first time an online system that can process anonymous requests for information on politicians and government agencies that has long been hidden from the public.
IFAI rules ensure that those requests, no matter how politically sensitive, are not ignored. Staffed by five-independent commissioners—often academics—the IFAI has 20 days to respond to a request. Similar open-information procedures have been established by governments in Peru, Panama and Costa Rica, but so far Mexico is judged to be the most user-friendly and is the only on-line system. In 2006, IFAI received some 60,000 information requests, of which 90 percent were made online. Of those the IFAI responded to 53,000; the bulk of the remaining 7,000, according to the IFAI, were left unanswered because the original filer failed to respond to a request for more information…
Tags: Alejandro Urbina, Federal Institute of Access to Public Information, First Lady's wardrobe, IFAI, Internet in Latin America, La Nacion, Marta Sahagun, Mexico, Monica Campbell, The Watchdog Generation: Wired Politics