Open government is meaningless without a free press

In a ceremony last week at the sumptuous Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto inaugurated the third summit of the Open Government Partnership, or OGP, by touting his administration’s record of transparency. While he faced no direct challenges during the highly scripted event (which featured civil society leaders and government representatives including United States UN Ambassador Samantha Power), the mood outside the secured venue was darker.

In the streets, demonstrators denounced the Mexican government’s failure to deliver justice a year after 43 students were massacred in the town of Ayotzinapa. Civil society activists at the Summit’s main venue a few blocks away took the stage to offer a stinging rebuke, declaring: “Mexico is far from having an open government.”

The OGP, an alliance of civil society and governments established to foster transparency and accountability, has grown rapidly since it was founded in 2011 and today has a budget of around $5 million, thanks to contributions from governments, foundations, and even some corporations. 

Governments that join the OGP must meet the organization’s eligibility criteria and commit to its principles, which affirm that “Governments collect and hold information on behalf of people, and citizens have a right to seek information about governmental activities.” Working with civil society, each participating government develops a National Action Plan with specific and measurable goals. Governments are held accountable through a series of measures, including independent efforts to ensure compliance.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

But among the 69 countries that have signed up for the OGP are a number whose commitments to open government and transparency are dubious at best. These include Turkey, where a brutal wave of repression is under way, and Azerbaijan, which has crushed independent media, sentencing the country’s leading investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, to seven and half years in prison.

Other OGP member governments are releasing more data (much of it innocuous) but not taking sufficient steps to create an environment in which citizens can safely use the information to demand accountability. In this category are Indonesia, South Africa, Kenya, the Philippines, and Mexico.

In fact, Mexico’s role as Summit host and OGP chair raises fundamental questions about what the term “open government” actually means. While it is true that as a result of the country’s 2002 Freedom of Information Act, data and public records are more readily available, Mexico is also experiencing a crisis in the administration of justice. Whistleblowers, human rights activists, and journalists all work under tremendous risk.

During a panel I led in Mexico, local journalists and press freedom advocates described a climate of fear and intimidation. Norma Trujillo, a journalist from the restive state of Veracruz, where more than a dozen journalists have been killed and disappeared in the last few years, noted sadly, “people are afraid to talk.” Alejandro Páez Varela, the director of the Mexican investigative journalism website Sin Embargo, declared: “How can a government that is riddled with corruption consider itself transparent?”

Another panelist was Daniela Pastrana, executive director of a grassroots media advocacy group called “Periodistas de a Pie,” or Journalists on Foot. The organization was founded 2007 as a training and support network but later expanded its remit to include press freedom. “We got to the point where the journalists in many parts of the country couldn’t do their job without risking their lives,” Pastrana told me, noting the Mexican government was either uninterested or incapable of taking action. “We had to step up to protect them.”

The statistics are sobering. According to CPJ research, 62 Mexican journalists have been murdered in the last decade, at least 26 of them in direct reprisal for their work. At least 12 more are missing.  Justice is rare in Mexico, and 90 percent of journalists’ murders have not been solved.

Although the primary threat to journalists in Mexico comes from drug trafficking organizations, which operate in much of the country, the traffickers rely on networks of corrupt officials, including police and prosecutors, to protect their operations. Because of this complicity, journalists under threat often feel they have nowhere to turn.

The last several Mexican governments have sought to address violence against the press with limited success. In February 2006, then-President Vicente Fox created a special prosecutor’s office, which today investigates attacks on free expression. In 2012, Mexico amended its constitution to make crimes against freedom of expression a federal offense. It also created a government-run “protection mechanism” to provide support, including police protection, to journalists under threat.

None of these measures has reduced the violence. Despite the creation of the office of the special prosecutor, the Mexican criminal justice system has failed to obtain a single conviction for the work-related murder of a journalist. The protection mechanism has had to work hard to overcome the high level of distrust toward the government, although some journalists point to recent improvements.

The experience of journalists in Mexico is a dramatic example of the link between transparency, open government, and press freedom. The open government movement is based on recognition that technology has made it possible to access more government data than ever before. But who is accessing this information, and for what purpose?

Without a strong press, information released by governments is accessed largely by elite sectors, ranging from business interests to well-funded NGOs, who use it to advance their own interests. A well-resourced and independent media, on the other hand, can sift through the data, determine what is relevant to the public, and present it in way that engages and generates debate. The press struggles to play this role in advanced democracies because it has been financially weakened and disrupted by new technologies. But it is even more difficult in repressive or violent societies where the media is under direct threat.

OGP staff with whom I met in Mexico City acknowledge that if the organization is just about nudging governments to release more data “it will be a failure.” They want the OGP to empower civil society around the world by developing National Actions Plans to which governments commit. By holding governments accountable for these commitments, civil society groups can make the press freer.

In my view, press freedom should not be an aspirational goal, but rather a sine qua non for OGP participation. Governments must acknowledge the inextricable link between transparency and a strong, independent, and vibrant media that is safe from violence and persecution. The OGP’s rapid growth is impressive. But In the long term, its credibility depends on its ability to ensure not only that governments release information, but that citizens can use it effectively to demand accountability and defend their rights. Among too many OGP members, Mexico included, this is not currently the case.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Joel Simon is a CJR columnist and the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. His second book, The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom, was published by Columbia University Press in November 2014.