Any measure to insure citizen access to government data needs teeth

The U.S. Embassy is among the sponsors next week for a seminar with a title asking does Costa Rica need a law on access to information.

The session will feature Lynn Carrillo, a lawyer and former reporter in Florida who now works for NBCUniversal, and Fernando Cruz, a Corte Suprema magistrate. The court also is a sponsor as is the Instituto de Prensa y Libertad de Expresión.

The session comes at a time when even the court itself is keeping more and more information off-limits over alleged privacy concerns. The U.S. Embassy is well known for its broad interpretation of the U.S. Privacy Act that allows employees to work in secret. Even the names of U.S. citizens who died in Costa Rica are censored on the U.S. State Department Web site even though death extinguishes privacy concerns.

Article 30 of the Costa Rican Constitution says that a citizen has free access to government agencies to obtain information of public interest, except for state secrets.

Of course, like all governments, Costa Rica defines what is in the public interest. Spanish-language newspapers have been in court many time to obtain certain information for news stories, and so have lawmakers.  Government agencies fought hard to keep secret those fat salaries being paid to favored employees.

The U.S. Freedom of Information Act might be thought to be a solution. That was passed in 1966 as a way to formalize citizen access to government information. Agencies still can run information seekers around and frequently do.

The State Department, despite once being headed by a secretary  who had a secret, personal email server in her home, generally
does not have critical information. The names of foreigners awarded U.S. visa would be nice to see as would reasons for visa denials.

But the diplomatic corps is small potatoes compared to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Defense. The Nacional Security Administration and the Central Intelligence Agency also rank right up there as secrecy fiends.

Access to the doings of these agencies is critical, particularly now that the United States has adopted authoritarian trappings.

Much of what is known about these agencies and their shredding of the U.S. Constitution comes from whistleblowers like Edward Snowden.

Although the seminar here is designed to mark World Press Freedom Day, access to information is the right of all humans and not special benefit for the press. In fact newspeople in the United States try to avoid Freedom of Information Act requests because responses are so variable and so long in coming.

Historians and those with special interests, such as environmentalists, make better use of the act.

Perhaps the purpose of the seminar Tuesday is to promote a U.S.-style  freedom of information act. That would be fairly hypocritical of U.S. Embassy workers. If they do, the most successful access to government laws are those that contain criminal penalties for reluctant bureaucrats. In the United States some laws like this are found at the state level, and they work well.

Bureaucrats are highly protective of their pensions, so that might be helpful here despite the dysfunctional court system.

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