January 22: Luncheon Series – “Journalism and Public Information in Brazil”

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Berkman Center Luncheon Series1-fr-24ago2006-byanaaraujo.jpg
Guest: Fernando Rodrigues, Nieman Fellow
Topic: “Journalism and Public Information in Brazil”

Tuesday, January 22, 12:30 pm
Berkman Center Conference Room

23 Everett St., 2nd Floor, Cambridge MA

“Journalism and Public Information in Brazil”

Brazil has been off of the radar in developed countries for quite awhile, but it has been a thriving democracy since 1985. The country has fixed its economy and the media is enhancing its role in society. Internet and public information have a lot to do with it.

Journalist Fernando Rodrigues assembled a database with some 25,000 records of Brazilian politicians showing electoral information and personal data –including the list of personal assets of each politician who run for office in the three past general elections in Brazil (1998, 2002 and 2006). In 2006, the day the website was last updated, it drew 1,000,000 viewers. It is a free access website and voters can check whether a particular politician has increased his or her patrimony in a compatible way with the declared income. The database has also been an endless source of news stories for media outlets all over Brazil.

Collecting all that information was not an easy task, since Brazil does not have a Freedom of Information Act. Mr. Rodrigues also works with the National Forum of Right of Access to Public Information, a new advocacy group in favor of a FoIA for Brazil. The Forum teaches people how to require public information from government agencies despite that there is no clear legislation about it.

Links

* Nieman Fellows

* Politicos de Brasil

* National Forum of Right of Access to Public Information

About Fernando

Fernando Rodrigues, 44, is a Brazilian journalist currently as an International Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. In Brazil, he has been for the past 20 years with the newspaper “Folha de S.Paulo” –the daily paper with largest circulation in the country.

At “Folha”, Mr. Rodrigues has been Economics Editor (in São Paulo) and foreign correspondent in New York, Tokyo and Washington, D.C. Before coming to Cambridge last August, he was based in Brasília as both a political columnist for the paper’s op-ed page and a feature reporter.

In 2000, Mr. Rodrigues started a political web site for the news portal UOL. In 2002 he launched the project “Políticos do Brasil” (Politicians from Brasil), with data about Brazilian politicians (electoral information, personal data and list of personal assets). In 2006 (election year in Brazil), the web site www.politicosdobrasil.com.br presented an updated version with some 25,000 records, encompassing virtually all major Brazilian politicians.

Mr. Rodrigues has won several journalism awards in Brazil and abroad. His last book, “Políticos do Brasil”, was awarded the best 2006 journalistic book in Brazil.

Mr. Rodrigues has an MA in International Journalism from the City University of London. He also serves as vice-president for ABRAJI (Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism).

Webcast

This event will be webcast live. Webcast viewers can join the discussion through IRC text chat or in the virtual world Second Life. If you miss the live chat, catch the podcast audio & video at MediaBerkman.

Transcript

[Please note that this transcript may not be complete and has been edited for this blog]

We have no freedom of information law in Brazil. Here are some other figures on internet usage in Brazil: 42.6 million people connected to the internet. But only 22.4% of the population has access to the internet right now. Although the figure is high, the % is low. But on the other hand, Brazil has one of the fastest growing rates of people being connected to the net. Between 2000-2007 there was an increase of 752% of people that were connected. Information about e-government in Brazil. Here is research conducted by the Brown Center for Public Policy, and to my surprise, Brazil was ranked 38 in 2006 and is now ranked 13. That’s maybe because there’s been a trend for all gov in all level in Brazil to be more present on the internet. The quality of the services that are being delivered to the Brazilian public are debatable. It’s amazing that a third world country like Brazil ranks 13th in terms of e-governance.

I’m going to talk about 2 cases I’ve been involved with. Politicos de Brazil – means “Brazilian Politicians”. the other is related to the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism in Brazil) – because we don’t have a freedom of information law in Brazil.

The Politicos is a website, the project started in 2000. We have more than 25,000 politicians listed on the site, covering the three national general elections – 1998, 2002, and 2006. Everyone who ran for office in those elections are listed (most of them). It’s a free search website. Anyone can search, look for information about any politician. And just to give you a flavor of what this is all about, in 2006, when we last updated it, it had an audience of more than 1 million unique visitors on the first day. The objectives of Politicos was to be, first of all because it was funded by the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, it was suppose to be source of stories for the newspaper. So we produced lots of news stories for the newspaper. But together with that, we had some side benefits from this project. For instance, we could check (journalists) and every citizen in Brazil could check individual records from any individual politician. It was an easy way to get hold of information about politicians. It was hard to get it through the authorities because we lack a Freedom of Information act. For the past 3 or 4 decades, there is a mandatory federal regulation that makes any politician running for public office to file with the election commission lots of information including his list of personal assets, patrimony – and that’s suppose to be a way for them to be held accountable, so that people would know whether they got richer during the time they’re in office, in a way that’s not compatible to the salaries they’re earning as politicians. Those documents were not previously made public, aside from some major politicians. The whole idea of this website is to provide all this information to the public in a free and open way. We had used during this process what we called in journalism ‘computer assisted reporting’ because we received the information in several formats. Most of the time it came in paper, so we had to type it, scan it, and then we had different sort of files and had to mash them up together. As I said, the beauty of this is making it possible for people to compare how a politician would be at the beginning of his term and compare the beginning situation to the situation to when he/she is about to leave office.

This is the homepage of Politicos. It’s an easy database, and I’ll show you how it works. You have basically three years (98, 02, 06), and you can choose, for instance, ‘president.’ It’s only in Portuguese – we don’t have an English version for that. So we have all the politicians who run for president in 2006- Lula. You get his personal file, and when you click here, you get instantly his personal assets in the year of 2006. You see his apartments, savings accounts. If you want, you can choose from 2002 and see the PDFs of his documents. You can see the form filed by the candidate. So we have that for 25,000 records. Of course that generated tons of news stories, because the data is open to anyone in Brazil. Because the newspaper was a national paper, it was interested in national politicians. We weren’t interested in local guys, but local newspapers were interested in local guys. It empowered journalists in other states to look for information about politicians of their local constituencies. That was the first time they had that opportunity.

The Forum of Right of Access to Public Information: the forum was founded in 2003. ABRAJI is a coalition of 18 organizations – including lawyers and judges groups – pushing for a national freedom of information act. This is the world map showing the countries – in South America, most of the countries are still debating the need (Ethan: Where can I find that online? Freedominformation.org). This map is good for pondering why still countries are lagging behind in terms of dealing with freedom of information, internet. The forum’s accomplishments so far include: getting 15 congressmen from the Brazilian congress committed to our effort to push for a FOI law in Brazil. We just launched a website for the Forum  www.informacaopublica.org.br). The website talks about the need for a law regulating this right in Brazil. And we’ve been training people to move forward and write requests for public information in Brazil. There’s an article in our constitution saying that everyone has to have access of public information, but this hasn’t been regulated with a law, that has been a gray area, and some local officers are never certain of the way to deal with those requests, so it’s difficult for the rank and file to get public information. For journalists, it’s been a little more information, and it’s possible to push some authorities to give you the information you need. We have been training people to do that.

This is the website: and when you go down, you have a model of a request, so anyone can print that and send it to any public office in Brazil, any public agency. Although sometimes you have to sue the local agency to get the information released. Most newspapers have been doing that. Just to go forward, this is basically about it.

Bruce: I’m curious how you got the site built.

A: It was basically very time consuming. It took 4 years for (me) to put that together. Because the politicians have to file their records in each of the 27 Brazilian states (there is a local authority). So we had to go sometimes in person to each of these states, and it was amazing to have my paper supporting me. In 2002, right before the general elections, which happens in Brazil every October, right before that we manage to put that together and it was online, it was an instant success. And as you mentioned, the major difficulty until 2002 was the fact that the information filed by the politicians was strange – it was all in paper. They were never giving us information in digital form, so it was me and one intern, we had to scan thousands of pages and put them together in a readable form and feed the database. In 2006, because I would say we put so much pressure on the Federal Elections commission in Brazil, they started to give us information in digital form. That’s why in ’98 you have PDFs and 2006, it’s digitized. It’s more searchable, but we could not afford to type information from previous years. The major difficulties were technical and political. We had to convince the local agents and sometimes we had to go to court and file suit. But we succeeded in the end.

LW: Do you know whether this model is being adopted or whether these problems are the same in other Latin American Countries (Mexico, Venezuela, Columbia)

Fernando: As far as I know, it hasn’t been replicated anywhere. But you have to bear in mind it’s necessary to have some provision to have politicians to file that information (otherwise you;d have to approach politicians individually). As for at FoI, well, Freedom of right of access to information, Mexico is ahead of the Latin American countries right now. They had a law enacted in 2002, which I believe is very effective and should be seen as a model for other Latin American countries, but they don’t have anything that would oblige politicians to file that information.

Persephone: I understand the site boasts not only the declaration of assets, but also the tax identifier, including the candidates that lost. Did you not have any privacy challenges on that?

Fernando: This is basically what would be a social security in the US. We published 25,000 of these on our website, and that makes it possible for anyone to take that number and the website says “know how to check politicians and their fiscal situation” – it’s a manual on how to use that number to see if that person is paying his or her taxes. People were very angry at us, but we decided that we should do that. I happened to be based in Brazil, I went to the Supreme Court and talked to some justices, and if we could as a newspaper, send them as a newspaper a formal question about whether politicians should have or not that number disclosed in Brazil (What would be their understanding of it). And they decided formally and responded that politicians, because they are in public life, there is no impediment whatsoever for a newspaper/website to publish any information regarding their fiscal situation. Because we aren’t disclosing the salaries of the politicians – this is whether or not they pay taxes. Their salaries are public anyways. So yes, that was a useful tool of the website as well.

Catherine: Do you have any way of knowing that this information affected voting patterns? Whether people exposed who had been dishonest?

Fernando: I don’t have much information on that, but the only objective information I would have to give you is the audience of the website – which has been enormous. And I suppose that because so many people searched through the website, more people made conscious decisions at the time they were going to vote in Brazil. But I don’t have any specific answers about if more people voted, or got involved in politics. My hunch is yes, it helped to improve political standards in Brazil

Ethan: There’s a whole trend towards sites like these in the US now. One of the things I find interesting about this is that you did this very much from a journalistic perspective – your newspaper helped smaller newspaper. Do you think the audience is the general public? Activists? Journalists? Who are we building these resources for, and who does it make sense to build them for?

Fernando: Primarily, it would be journalists. Last week a newspaper from Rio interviewed me about this and made the front page of it last week (even though this has been online for 2 years now). Because – we don’t have that many journalists in Brazil. We had 1 million unique visitors – so it’s all tied to people who would be interested in this. The prime time for this is prior to the election. Right now it doesn’t get much of an audience, but during election years, it was all over the internet, the bloggers were posting notes and comparing politicians.

Ethan: What’s the biggest story? The biggest scandal?

Fernando: So many. Let me show you. The increase of patrimony of politicians in Brazil being much higher than the increase of the average Brazilian taxpayer. Patrimony assets are apartments, cars, phones, – net worth. Basically I’d say the major story is how much in personal assets have politicians accumulated over the years? It was increasing at 10 fold the rate of inflation, but that was the major impact in my opinion. But we had tons of stories about inconsistencies in documents filed by politicians and the real life they were having in their local towns. We had several local newspapers doing that. A practical example of what happened: a competitor’s newspaper used it – and I thought it was great. This politician was a former governor of an state, and his assets were R$549,000,00 roughly $250k, in 1998 he had R$400,00,00, but when he was about to leave office the politicians were filing those records with no concern – they could lie – because no one saw them. And then he bought a penthouse for 3,000,000.00 R$. And how could he? So it was a big scandal. Another example: a politician declared his house for a small value, but see what the reporters found when they went to the address. They compare the evolution of assets of politicians over the years now.

This story came out last week, of the net assets of politicians in Brazil that it was increasing at a rate of 41.8% over an election cycle (4 years), and inflation in Brazil is around 3-4% these days.

RobF: The theories behind how to break the cycle of corruption (1) info is not available to the electorate and (2) the electorate doesn’t care that much. Are there other examples of politicians being reelected to office if you find these flags?

Fernando: I would say yes – that people would still vote for those bastards. It’s democracy, you know. It happens.

Ethan: What’s the sort of public perception of corruption? Brazil doesn’t rank well in the corruption index by Transparency International.

Fernando: I like your question so much. Because this index put together by Transparency International is so bad. It’s a misconception, because in Brazil we’ve had democracy for more than 2 decades. And above all, a free media, a competitive media in Brazil, and we have been chasing the bad guys so hard and we’ve had so many stories about corruption that one might have the wrong impression that everybody is a thief and the index put together is about impressions. It’s one aspect of life in these countries. I think the standards might be as bad as those in other countries, but because we have this more transparent way in Brazil, that there may be more corrupt people perceived in Brazil. Thank you for asking that – it’s really a misconception. Let me just follow up to that and say that I’m a member of ICIJ in Washington, an international network of journalists around the world, and in 2003 we started the “Global Integrity Index” and we decided that we should go after measuring corruption in another, we would go and see how the institutions were functioning in different countries and how people would have access to anti-corruption mechanisms in those countries. And of course, because corruption is not a measurable thing, it’s impossible to measure.

Q: I’m curious about another aspect- conflict of interest problems involving politicians, which may or may not be relevant in terms of increases of net worth. So conflicts of interest where a construction company or a defense company says to a politician ‘maybe I’ll pay you’ or maybe ‘I’ll support your next campaign financially’ and in exchange I hope you’ll give us support in legislation.

Fernando: We aren’t as advanced as the US in tracing those lobbyist and those interests. The Center for Public Integrity, the Open Secrets Foundation, they will do a great job here. We are trying to mimic those experiences in Brazil. We haven’t had success because it’s a new initiative in Brazil, but because soft money is much more dramatic, so it’s been a little difficult for us to trace out the lobbying and who is behind every politician in the country. Certainly something we’ll be heading to in the next couple of years. The quality of the public/official data in Brazil is very poor. Following up on what Ethan said, this is the Global Integrity Index, it’s much smaller, but includes 290 indicators in each country, which is much more precise for measuring corruption in my opinion.

Ethan: And what’s particularly fascinating about it, people working in the developing world, doing the best jobs about transforming their government – Argentina, Columbia, Botswana – TI’s a bit weird. It’s a perception, one that can take decades to change – it’s measuring a brand of a nation. In looking at this, looking at the moderate rating (Argentina, Ethiopia, Ghana… etc) and out of that list, the vast majority are sort of fairly happy governance stories over the last decade. If we omit Kenya and Georgia because of recent problems, the rest of them are pretty good narratives about strengthening of the public sector.

Q: Regarding the funding of this initiative. Up to now it was funded by the newspaper. I’d like to ask first if the newspaper is owned by a company with politically interests. And second, the fact that you are providing other newspapers that are competing with you, what’s the incentive? Third, will this initiative continue if you leave?

Fernando: The newspaper is a family run business. It’s a successful newspaper, it’s the best selling paper in Brazil, very influential. This project added to the credibility of the newspaper. Everyone recognized it as the major supporter of this idea. So I think the gain for the newspaper was adding to its already good image, some more elements that would last for a while. And they have to build up on that. As far as incentive for the newspaper because it was fueling some competitors to write news stories, I don’t think that’s a major issue. We knew from the beginning that would happen, and what we did, before we put the database online, we prepared tons of stories so that we were ready to go at least at the same time as competitors. And we put the major stories out before everyone. The other newspapers stories weren’t the major ones, because we had already published those. And to your third point, the project depends a lot on me, but I don’t have any plans to leave the newspaper so I haven’t really thought about it.

Doc: Has this helped newspapers?

Q: Has anyone resigned during elections? Or returned any money (even donations to charitable organizations?)

Fernando: Politicians have superegos. No, they haven’t. Some of them have been facing legal charges, as the governor I mentioned. He’s still a politician, trying to run for office again.

Doc: The guy in jail?

Fernando: Yes.

Ethan: How do we turn this into a movement? For this to happen in Brazil, you already had on the books an incredibly useful law (the patrimony law). I’d love to get this law passed in Ghana. At the same time, this example is going to make Ghanaian politicians really nervous, so how do we take a really exciting story, an exciting tool for journalists – how do we export this revolution? And is this something you are actively trying to do?

Fernando: I’ve had lots of work trying to keep this up, so I haven’t had the chance to think about taking this international. I think it’d be wonderful to have this in other countries. The way to do that , as far as I’ve learned in my experience as a journalist, no initiative would be successful without massive public support or a very, the various actors of that particular society truly involved and committed to do something like that. So you have to start putting together, as we did in Brazil for the FoI law, a forum. It’s starts like an interest of a particular group (take the FoI in this country, or freedom of right of access. In this country, in 1954 it took the nuclear tests in the south pacific to start the conversation, then it took 3-4 for years for Johnson so sign something into law). Journalists work with information, from the FoI act in this country, less than 5% of requests come from journalists themselves, 95% come from people that are not journalists or working for media companies. Which tells you there is a general demand or interest for that. The journalists have to be involved from the very beginning. In Ghana, I would say, a good half would be to start up to convince news media to hop onto that and try to get together and build up a movement and motivate people from other sectors of society. We started as journalists, then we invited judges, businessmen, to show that this was in the general interest of society, that it’s not just a journalist thing.

Q: How, in a society that is so corrupt, the politicians would pass a law in the first place?

Fernando: It was in place in the past 40 years, but wasn’t used by anyone. The generals, during the dictatorship, who imposed that law on the politicians during the right wing military dictatorship (1964-1985), in the beginning of it, one of the main ideas of the coup, they were coming into to get rid of the corrupt politicians in Brazil. And they enacted some laws to show people that they were actually ridding corruption from Brazil, but because we didn’t have democracy, the law was pretty much useless. Then it was dormant, then we had democracy, and then in the 90s, people started looking more at the laws we have in our judicial framework and use those a little more, and it culminated with this database when I requested all the documents that were filed. And then things became a little different, but to answer your question, the law wasn’t passed by the politicians being shown here. I doubt if we didn’t have that, it would be possible to get that in an easy way right now.

Doc: Have you been threatened?

Fernando: Yes, sometimes. While the situation isn’t the best in Brazil, I work for a mainstream outlet in Brazil, the threats would be minimized, but I would say that situation in countryside states would be very fierce. The only time I faced direct threats was 1997 when I put out a story on a vote-buying scheme in the congress and I had concrete evidence and some congressment were expelled from Congress. I got threats by telephone, the newspaper gave me a bodyguard, but that was the last time it happened.

Michael Anti: What made you have the idea for this database? Before this website, did you have some examples that you referenced?

Fernando: I’ve always been a computer/internet junkie. Looking at experiences in other countries, and I thought I should do something here in Brazil, and then I ended up doing this. I picked up examples from other countries, most of the time in the US.

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