Leaders of the four branches of government announced an agreement Wednesday to advance public access to information.
The theory is that transparency and citizen participation would work against corruption and promote innovation, according to Casa Presidencial.
Open government has been a continual theme of the Luis Guillermo Solís administration as well as the Poder Judicial. The legislature has been criticized recently for lack of access, so José Alberto Alfaro Jiménez, president of the Asamblea Legislativa, reaffirmed his commitment to openness Wednesday.
Also there was Zarela Villanueva, president of the Corte Suprema de Justicia, but according to a summary by Casa Presidencial, she stopped short of endorsing information openness.
The summary said she promised openness in institutional management, reporting official progress periodically, opening a space for citizen participation and an administration of trustworthy and effective justice.
In fact, the Corte Suprema has taken steps to reduce the information given to citizens. For example, last month the Sala IV constitutional section of the court ordered the judiciary to hide the names of individuals who have been banned from leaving the country due to back child support. The Sala IV accepted the appeal that said this knowledge would humiliate those listed on the site and violate their right to intimacy.
The Corte Suprema did not object strongly when lawmakers passed a bill that restricts the judicial archives from including many convictions in criminal cases. The judiciary is empowered to emit what is known as a hoja a delincuencia. The document even can be ordered via the internet.
But the new law allows all but those convicted of the most serious crimes to clean their record, sometimes immediately upon completing the sentence. Employers have relied on these criminal records during the hiring process. But now many criminal convictions become secret after the sentence has been served.
That is supposed to rehabilitate criminals who now will not be barred from accepting confidential positions because they have a clean criminal record.
Most expats know that in Costa Rica criminal and civil court records are closed to all but those involved in the cases. Trials are open, but only a small number of cases actually get that far.
And many times when a summary of a court decision is made public, the names of those involved are removed. Investigators, those involved in loans and mortgages and investors have complained about this because they cannot find out sufficient information to do what are known as due diligence reports on the credit worthiness of individuals with whom they may make deals.
This lack of information creates a culture where court information is a valuable commodity. Two years ago one judicial worker was detained on the allegation that he accessed confidential records. What happened next is unknown because the criminal court records are closed.
The Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones is where birth, death and marriage records are kept. That fourth branch of government has had a web page for years that can provide that information. This is the agency that issues cédulas of identity as well as runs the elections. The government branch was represented Wednesday by Luis Antonio Sobrado González, president.
In February the executive branch issued a draft of a freedom-of-information decree designed to give more access to official activity.
The decree would require government agencies to maintain a web page with 20 types of detailed information on its functioning. Among other data, the agency must publish on the site salaries and information and costs of any trips made by employees. The agency also must publish a list of any money disbursed as grants, scholarships or similar to any person.
The decree also would require agencies to designate a freedom-of-information officer to respond to complaints.
The decree says that agencies have to respond to public requests for information within 10 days unless the request is very complicated. In that case, more time is allowed.
The penalty for public employees who do not provide information is vague and based on unstated established administrative sanctions.
The agreement among the branches of government is pretty abstract and urges an institutional culture of openness and collaboration. It also urged the inclusion of marginalized groups and seems to promote heavy use of web pages to provide the data.
Casa Presidencial already has such a page with salaries and contracts, but with so much data reading it takes a lot of time. Reporters often complain about how hard they must work to obtain any information more than the laudatory press releases issued by government agencies.