The right to know

October 30, 2008

Unlike almost every other country in Europe, Spain does not have what might be called a ‘transparency law’. Sweden has had one since 1766, but onlySpain, Luxembourg, Greece and Cyprus don’t have one today, while Malta has put one into motion recently. There are 78 countries in the world with one but we can surely guess that Zimbabwe doesn’t and it wouldn’t require a much imagination to take a guess about a few more.

Severiano Fernández, professor of Administrative Law at the University of Cádiz, says,” Spain wants to be a modern country but in these matters it lags well behind countries like Mexico.” Or even Guatemala, according to Access Info Europe, the Old Continent’s branch of an international organization that abrogates free access to information.

In a recent study that followed 41requests for information made to several different level public agencies, Access Info came to a devastating concluson: 78% of them did not receive the information requested. In some cases (43%) the information was actively denied and in 43% there was no reply to the request at all.

So what is a ‘transparency law’? It simply gives the citizen the right to know what happens at, in or about government agencies and their activities. The agencies that taxpayers pay for, be they national, regional or local. It’s a Freedom of Information Act by another name.

In other words, in Spain we don’t have the right to know how our money is spent, how long a waiting list is at the hospital, how many soldiers are in the forces or how many Spanish casualties there have been in Afghanistan, or how many offices our Council is paying rent for, or what the cost of refurbishing them might be. If you’ve ever tried to find out any of these, or almost anything else, you’ll know what I mean.

The law of omertà is prevalent in Spain. The law of silence. Officials, secretaries, functionaries and their ilk have it down to a tee: their excuses for not giving information can be imaginative, but when that fails, there is always something called silencio informativo, or administrative silence. This is probably why letters to ministries, councils or official bodies of any kind remain unanswered. The lower the administrative ladder, the worse it gets. They must all believe they are the guardians of ‘official secrets’.

In most other countries with such a law, the time stipulated for a reply is 15 days. The Access Info report states that the average reply time in Spain (when there actually is a reply) is 38 days, though it uncovered too many cases where a reply had spent over 6 months ‘in the freezer’. Sweden is admittedly an exception, though certainly an admirable one: a reply must be made within 24 or 48 hours, depending on its urgency. By law. If the request is complex and needs a lot of searching, the person requiring it will get a phone call, within 24 hours, explaining the reason for the delay and giving an exact date for delivery. By law.

Strangely, the introduction of such a law was on the PSOE manifestos for the 2004 and 2008 elections. “Impulsaremos una ley sobre el derecho al libre acceso a la información que garantice que todos los poderes, autoridades públicas y entidades sostenidas con fondos públicos faciliten, en tiempo útil, el libre acceso a toda información o documento oficial, con la única excepción de lo que atente a la legislación de protección de datos o de secretos oficiales,” it said. “We shall propose a law on the right of free access to information that guarantees that all government agencies, authorities and entities maintained with public funds facilitate, in useful time, free access to all information or public document, with the only exception of that which attempts against the laws on data protection or official secrets.” We’re still waiting.

President Zapatero only mentioned it in passing some three weeks ago, probably because the Council of Europe is planning the first international treaty on this right at a convention that could be happening as soon as 2009.

It would be ironic if the convention was held in sunny Spain. Of course, we couldn’t find out how much it cost…

(c) Alexander Bewick 2008

Once upon a time, in the not too distant past, October the 12th was a celebration of the Discovery of America, but around the 400th anniversary (1992) of Columbus’s famous voyage the Spanish-speaking countries on the American continent rose up in protest with the obvious conclusion that they hadn’t needed to be discovered, thank you very much. The Inca, Aztec and Maya empires had already existed in splendour, if at different times and with a variety of influences on their neighbours, when Spain was still in the Dark Ages.

The fact that Don Cristóbal and the hordes that followed him decimated the native population through tricks, disease and gunpowder would have undoubtedly had some impact on the latter day protests from the Americas. Nevertheless, Spain is proud of its ‘discovery’ and the riches that made it the most powerful ‘European’ empire of the XVII Century.

These days Spain’s trade with Latin America accounts for a very large proportion of its income, however. Language, history and a largely Mediterranenan temperament have also created strong links to all the Hispanic countries from Mexico in the North to Argentina and Chile in the South. But there’s an interesting extrapolation to this.

According to conclusions reached at a seminar for journalists, academicians, diplomats and intellectuals from Spain and Latin America held recently in San Millán de la Cogolla, La Rioja, there will be some 100 million Spanish speakers in the US by 2025, which projection will represent 25% of its population. This would make the United States of America the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Hispanics, as they’re called there, are already the largest minority, having overtaken African Americans some while ago. And the US is the second-largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world right now.

There is some irony in the fact that if you tell the average only-speak-English American (Northern, that is) that you’re Spanish, they will automatically pigeon-hole you with their neighbours to the South. Indeed, most of them seem to have no idea that Spanish comes from Spain. But then, most of them have never heard of Spain, either, and certainly couldn’t place it on a map (which conjures up a farcical image of a Mexican-American schoolkid pointing to Chicago when asked to identify Spain on a blackboard).

Native Americans (I use this term for lack of another), North or South, are known for their infinite patience, something that might account for their having been downtrodden for so many centuries. But patience, we are told, is a virtue, so I can’t help feeling there is a certain cosmic justice to those statistics. Many if not most of the immigrants from the South to the US, legal or otherwise, have more ‘native’ blood in them than Spanish, but they carry their common language with them. So the justice offers a double-whammy: ‘we were conquered once and now its our turn’.

(c) Alexander Bewick 2008

(Related links: Spanish in the World; Wikipedia; Instituto Cervantes)