Archive | January, 2011

Brazil Government Bucking Trend Toward Informational Openness

25 Jan

The latest of several worrying trends relating to informational freedom in Brazil, earlier this week the Brazilian  Ministry of Education and Culture revoked the Creative Commons license that it has used since 2004. The move is yet one more indication that the Brazilian government continues to resist openness and strive for informational control. Brazil denies its citizens access to historical archives and access to public information. It remains one of only a handful of countries in the region not to have passed a freedom of information law– although a bill has languished in Congress since 2009.

Informational Control: the Internet

Unlike Copyright Law, Creative Commons licenses allow for free sharing of content and therefore permit technologists to make productive “re-use” of web-based materials, creating useful digital tools or graphic illustrations of information. The large and growing Brazilian Open-Data movement, best represented by the virtual community Transparência Hackday, has slammed government for its decision to restrict the use of its content. According to an article published on Brazil’s Creative Commons website, new usage rules leave those wanting to use the website’s content in a dangerous legal limbo.

Government control over the internet goes much deeper than issues of copyright, however. Unlike most other countries, websites ending in the country’s abbreviation–e.g.> .com.br –must be licensed through a governmental regulating entity, the CGI.

Brazil is also gaining quite the reputation for internet censorship. The Brazilian government reportedly asked Google to remove more content from the internet than any other country, as Google shows in a June-January 2010 sample. Although China’s numbers are not accounted for in the totals, and half of requests by the Brazilian government address content on the nationally popular Google-run social website, Orkut, the amount of requests-for-removals dwarfed those of most other countries. According to Google, copyright infringement, defamation, and  impersonation are the primary justifications for governmental requests for Google to remove content.

Denying Citizens Access to Public Archives on their Past

Resistance to providing citizens with information on the country’s past is yet another manifestation of how Brazil is bucking international trends toward openness. In November, 2010, Brazil’s leading advocates boycotted a government-sponsored International Seminar on Archives and Access to Information in response to broken promises for greater openness. Government announced it would keep archives from the 1964-85 dictatorship closed, contrary to what it had pledged earlier. One month after the boycott, in December 2010, the OAS’ (Organization of American States) Inter-American Court ruled on citizens “right to truth” and the illegality of Brazil’s infamous Amnesty Law (Gomes Lund v. Brazil), which protects those who perpetrated human rights abuses during the last dictatorship.

This decision–which still awaits a response from the Brazilian government– follows on the heels of another seminal Inter-American ruling, Claude Reyes et al v. Chile (2006), which mandated the adoption of freedom of information laws by all governments within the OAS, and led to the passage of four laws in 2007-2008, those of Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Uruguay. The Brazilian government has remained unresponsive to both of these OAS decisions, even while it propagates an international image of  social justice (justice without information?) and transparency.

No Freedom of Information– Where do all those Tax Dollars Go?

Even though Brazil has one of the highest tax burdens in the world, the country curiously still places among the top fifteen most unequal countries, globally. This paradox should raise eyebrows about  where all those tax dollars go. Yet Brazilian citizens still have no freedom of information law with which they can “follow the money”.

Although more than 85 countries now have freedom of information laws, Brazil’s measure still languishes in Congress. Originally promised in 2006 by then President Lula da Silva, the bill was passed by the Chamber of Deputies in April of 2010 and currently awaits enactment in the Senate. The right to information is a fundamental human right, enshrined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is of considerable use to businesses, the press, NGOs, public sector administrators, and citizens.

In a phone conversation with a a colleague at Transparência Hackday, I suggested that we arrange a meeting and presentations to address the issue of the pending law. The media have certainly not provided sufficient coverage for citizens to infer what the law is, what it is for, what the global norms are, and what has happened to the measure politically. Since that phone conversation, transparency advocates have set a meeting for February 5th at 2pm in São Paulo’s Esfera Cultural. The meeting has gained attention; it has now secured the sanction of Brazil’s Artigo 19, among others. Let’s hope we come up with some strategies that will help advance the cause of openness and informational democracy in Brazil.

Brazilian Business Groups Will Donate 2000 Houses to Victims

22 Jan

Yesterday’s post on philanthropy and economic optimism in Brazil appeared to be timely: Globo announced today that a group of businesses, including MRV, RJZ/Cyrela, Gafisa, PDG, Rodobens & Rossi, will be donating 2000 houses for those left without homes in the wake of recent mudslides. Stay tuned.

Does the Rise of Economic Optimism Lead to More Charity?

22 Jan

Booming Brazil and Buoyant Brazilians

An Ipsos Public Affairs poll measuring national economic optimism in 24 countries placed Brazil far ahead of the pack, with 78 percent of people optimistic about the country’s economy, according to today’s Globo newspaper. India came a distant second at 61 percent and France a gloomy last, with just 3 percent buoyant about the country’s economic outlook.

Charitable Potential

Today the Folha de São Paulo reported on a McKinsey Consulting study that placed Brazil’s potential for philanthropy at 9.4 billion dollars per year (how did they get that number anyhow?). Charitable giving in Brazil currently stands at 4.7 billion, and only 25 percent of people claim they donate money to charity. By contrast, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada placed among the top three, with between 64 and 70 percent donating money to charity. The world average for charitable giving amounts to 0.6 percent of GDP,  in Latin America it is 0.4, and in Brazil it stands below the regional average at 0.3 percent of GDP.

Given Economic Gains, will Charity Blossom in Brazil?

Will more disposable income–thanks to Brazil’s recent economic windfalls–prompt greater charitable giving relative to increases in GDP? This is a tough question to answer, so please comment. I’ll start with a “yes” and a “no”.

“YES”:

The economy is booming and Brazilians like their fellow countrymen, which is more than can be said for most countries. Government, always the paternal hand on everyone’s head here in Brazil, could easily promote philanthropy as a form of promoting social solidarity. They might achieve gains with their pals over at Globo, the third largest TV network in the world and Brazilians’ first source for everything TV. Globo has used an annual campaign, Esperança Criança (Hope Child), to raise approximately 190 million Reais ($115 million US) since 1986.

“NO”:

Below is a Brazilian introduction and courtesy, a custom, really, that is repeated more times a day than probably any other phrase in the Portuguese language.

Question: “Tudo bom?” (everything good?)            Answer: “Tudo bem” [or "tudo bom"] (all is well.)

The same goes for “tudo joia?” “tudo bem?” and others– point being, Brazilians are just fine. And if they’re fine, what’s the need to get charitable? This whole “yes” “no” exercise is really an inquiry into what drives charity, if not economic progress, and the above logic is pretty silly (albeit fun to think about).

Seriously considered, however, there are clearly some logistical challenges to greater philanthropy. How to give, for example. There simply are not that many well-publicized, easily accessible mechanisms for giving. This may change with greater wealth, but as it stands, outlets for giving do not jump out at you the way they do in the north. Another issue is trust. A lot of charities are suspect and suspected. Rightly so, apparently; fraud in charities and other types of NGOs is common.

The Paradox of Charity

Much social charity constitutes a form of empathy with fellow citizens. In rich countries, citizens might give because they wish to subsidize those social sectors unreached by government services. If government services are weak to begin with, however, you might assume that people would give more to charity– in order to pick up the slack left by the state. Unfortunately, this is one of the paradoxes of many emerging countries– the “have” classes tend to distance themselves from the “have-nots”–with gated communities, exclusive clubs, private schools, cars rather than public transport or bicycles, etc. Just maybe, though, charity implies an empathetic journey into the terrain of the have-nots, which is simply too much guilt and displacement for most “haves” to comfortably undertake.

Public Officials Ousted from Public Service Doubled Over Course of Lula’s Eight Years

11 Jan

Globo reported today that the number of public officials ousted from the public service over the course of President Lula da Silva’s administrations (2002-2010) doubled. In 2003 the number of public officials punished tallied 264 and in 2010 this total had doubled to 521. Globo has produced a list of President Dilma Rousseff campaign pledges. It lists “fighting corruption” as one of the promises of the Dilma administration, and “ensuring greater transparency through state reform,” but it does not list the passage of the access to information law now awaiting approval in the Senate.

The Specter of Brazilian Inflation

10 Jan

Canada’s Globe and Mail today reported on the specter of Brazilian of Brazilian inflation. Prices have surged over the last years; inflation was 10 percent last year and the Real is stronger than ever. So strong, reports the Globe, that Goldman Sachs dubbed it the most overvalued currency in the world. Good time for Brazilians to travel, bad time for exporters. Globo reported yesterday that for the first time Brazilian importers are now exceeding exporters because of the price of the Real, and current accounts are trending negative.

The problem, observes the Globe and Mail, is that raising interest rates to fight inflation has serious costs in a country that has among the world’s highest prime interest rates (10.5 percent). Loans are extremely costly in Brazil, and access to capital by the poor is particularly difficult. It would seem that these conditions would make Brazil a prime location for micro-lending (adjusting, of course, for inflation).

61 Hydro-Electric Dams Threaten Amazon, Forests

10 Jan

I was surprised and delighted by Jornal Globo’s gutsy report (portuguese) on the 61 hydro electric plants planned from here until 2019, which will destroy 5300 square kilometers of forest– an area approximately four times the size of São Paulo, South America’s largest city. The hydro projects will require 7700 kilometers of transmission wires, and will therefore also require the construction of roads and settlements, a further threat to Brazil’s forests. The proposed hydro projects will generate 42 kilowatts of electricity and most of the dams will be funded by Brazil’s giant development bank, the BNDES.

According to Globo, 15 of the proposed hydro-project will interfere directly with protected areas, and 13 of the projects will interfere directly or indirectly with indigenous reserves. The project is part of the PAC-2, President Dilma’s “Program for Accelerated Growth.” No environmental assessments have been performed. Globo reports that a Federal Defender (from the Ministry of Public Defense– Ministério Público Federal (MPF) from Pará state, Felício Pontes Jr., calls the government’s electric utility, Electrobras, “the government’s biggest black box,” because little public information has been made available on ambitious electricity projects planned or currently underway.

Although Electrobras is 52 percent owned by government, it is a publicly traded company (traded on the Bovespa) and is Latin America’s largest power utility. Indigenous resistance against hydro-projects in Brazil has been ongoing.

Dilma Will Go Ahead with Truth Commission

10 Jan

President Dilma Rousseff will apparently approve legislation advanced by the National Truth Commission, reports yesterday’s Jornal Globo.

Brazil remains one of the few countries in Latin America whose leaders have not yet reckoned with human rights abuses committed during the last dictatorship. The military ruled Brazil from 1964-1985, during which time hundreds of people were “disappeared” and thousands tortured.

A general amnesty protects those responsible for crimes committed during the dictatorship, but the truth commission’s project merely aims to identify the torturers.

Will good intentions turn into action? Military objections may still sink the project.  The military retains significant influence in Brazil. It was the military and foreign affairs (Itamaraty) that prompted government to go back on its promise to open up the national archives, this past November, and government has dragged its feet in passing an access to public information law. Brazil remains one of the few countries in the Americas not to have enacted a freedom of information law. A law currently awaits treatment in the Senate.

National Ombudman on Human Rights Reports Extermination Campaigns

10 Jan

The Jornal Globo newspaper reported yesterday that “extermination” groups are operating in at least six states: Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Goiás, Mato Grosso, and São Paulo.

These extermination groups, which gained international notoriety in 1980s, target the homeless and homosexuals, among others. According to Globo, the police are often involved in the killings.

Complete statistics are un available because records are not kept by either the military or civil police or the public defender (ministerio publico). President Lula da Silva’s administration did not provide the National Ombudsman with its own budget during the entire administration.

 

The Threat of Media Reform as Effective Media Control

9 Jan

Your party will win the next election and you want to make sure the media keeps providing you with reliably un-critical if not favorable coverage– here is your media strategy: you promise to change the regulatory status quo of the media before the election, and you renege on the proposed reform following your victory. The media behaves with deference for fear of reform, and treats you favorably once entreaties by media lobbyists to “delay” reform are met.

On December 20th 2010 President Lula asked the party’s National Executive Committee to dedicate itself to three efforts: media and communication reform, political reform (writ large, apparently), and youth programs. Before and during her election campaign, President-elect Dilma Rousseff echoed Lula’s long-held promise to reform the media, especially the electronic media.

The influence of the country’s most popular television station, Globo, is legendary: it is third largest in the world by audience numbers, only surpassed by NBC and CBS in the much larger U.S. market. Globo is a media juggernaut, exerting incalculable influence over the country’s politics and political culture. It controls large holdings in radio, newsprint, and broadband, among other interests.

On January 6th 2011, Rousseff and her Secretary of Social Communication, Paulo Bernardo, reneged on their party’s promise to introduce reform. Instead, they will “open it up for public discussion” (front page and page 15 of Jornal Globo– e.g.).

Media reform–or the threat thereof–hangs like a damocles sword over the media in any country. The promise of media reform is an age-old political trick designed to cow the media into relative submission. The promise of media reform is perhaps the most effective means of ensuring favorable or moderately un-critical coverage.

There are normative and economic lines of reasoning for media’s aversion to reform. First, reform can potentially restrict the liberty of expression. For example, “ethics” councils might be established, presiding over what content is and is not permissible. Reform also changes the economic equilibrium. Under the old rules, media firms learn to “optimize the utility” of regulation. Introducing new rules imposes transaction costs. Reform may, for example, limit ownership in certain sectors, or rules prohibit one-firm from owning radio, television and print interests within one geographic region.

The promise of media reform can explain why media owners may back-off certain delicate topics. It certainly provides one explanation for why the news media has been so reluctant to cover access to public information reform.