Monday, January 20, 2014

Controversial State Secrecy Bill Under Review in Honduras

The fight for transparent governance in Honduras saw a minor victory on Friday. Following backlash from civil society groups, Honduran lawmakers suspended a controversial state secrecy bill passed last week that would restrict freedom of information in the country.

The bill was passed on January 15 by a 71-57 majority, largely supported by the ruling coalition led by the National Party. La Prensa reports that it authorizes the president and cabinet ministers to withhold sensitive documents from the public for 5, 10 or 15 years, depending on their importance to “security interests, national defense and the achievement of national objectives.” So-called “super-secret” information could be labeled as such by the president, keeping it unavailable to the public for 25 years.

The law would essentially supersede the work of the Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP), which has been charged with withholding or releasing sensitive information since the passage of a transparency law in 2006. For this reason, IAIP Director Doris Imelda Madrid has criticized the measure as a violation of international treaties and a threat to accountability, claiming it “prevents citizens from having access to public information.”

As the AFP noted last week, a number of transparency advocacy NGOs in the country immediately blasted the bill, holding a joint press conference to denounce the vote. Among those present were representatives of the 15-member Grupo de la Sociedad Civil coalition, as well as National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) Director Julieta Castellanos, El Tiempo reports.

The criticism apparently had an impact. According to La Prensa and La Tribuna, the National Party’s congressional leadership has agreed to suspend the bill, naming a committee to assess apparent contradictions between the measure and the earlier 2006 law. 

News Briefs
  • In other Honduran political news, President-elect Juan Orlando Hernandez has proposed a radical restructuring of the executive branch prior to his January 27 inauguration. The plan, which has been sold as a way to reduce government waste and bureaucracy, would create eight new “super ministries” charged with overseeing the work of several smaller cabinet ministries. Russell Sheptak of Honduras Culture and Politics has an interesting overview/critique of Hernandez’s plan, and notes that it hit a stumbling block on Friday, when lawmakers refused to pass a law paving the way for the reforms.
  • The Independent has an in-depth report on the work of Salvadoran NGO Pro-Busqueda, which works to help reunite children taken from their parents during the country’s civil war with their long-lost relatives. Many of these were illegally sold to international adoption rings, and the paper notes that 2,354 child adoption licenses were granted during the country’s armed conflict.
  • The AP reports on a break-through in the case of the 2000 murder of radio journalist Jean Dominique. Nine suspects have been charged with the killing, including a number of ranking members of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Family Lavalas party.
  • The New York Times’ Simon Romero profiles a growing trend in Brazil: so-called “rolezinhos no shopping,” mass gatherings at shopping malls involving hundreds or even thousands of working-class youths in the country’s biggest cities. While the gatherings are not explicitly political (see this detailed explainer by blogger Rio Gringa), the fact that they serve to showcase the wide gap between haves and have-nots in the country has led some to describe them as a new method of protest. Others, however, disagree. Journalist Leandro Beguoci argues that the gatherings are social rather than political, and that characterizations by both the left and right “dehumanize” those who participate in them.
  • The Mexican government has released a statement saying it “strongly rejects” the planned execution of one of its citizens in Texas this week, calling it a violation of international treaties. The country officially banned capital punishment since 2005.
  • The Washington Post examines the makeup of the “self-defense” militias in the Mexican state of Michoacan, pointing out that many of its members have lived and worked long-term in the United States, and some are even U.S. citizens. One of the top leaders of the most high-profile militia group, for example, is nicknamed “El Americano” because he was born in the U.S.
  • Mexican government officials claim to have captured three members of the Knights Templar Cartel in Michoacan, including one Jesus Vazquez Macias, who authorities described as a leader within the organization. However, militia groups in the state have disputed this claim, alleging that Vazquez is simply a top hit man for the gang. Meanwhile, Michoacan Governor Fausto Vallejo told reporters that he had named a new state attorney general and police chief, Reuters reports.
  • At RiosMontt-Trial.org, The Open Society Justice Initiative’s Emi MacLean has an update on the trial against Guatemalan ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt, covering the recent appellate court decision ordering the annulment of all court proceedings in the case since November 2011. The ruling has been appealed to the Constitutional Court, which will have the final say on the matter. Maclean also notes that the country is set to replace intrepid Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz and a new slate of Supreme Court and appeals court judges later this year, and there is already evidence that the process has been politicized.
  • Former Guatemalan guerrilla and indigenous leader Juan de Leon Tuyuc Velasquez was killed last week in the central department of Solola. Authorities say he was run over by an unknown vehicle, but Prensa Libre reports that indigenous rights activists in the country are clamoring for a full investigation into his murder, claiming he was killed by political opponent.
  • Uruguayan President Jose Mujica is coming under increasing criticism from elements of his Frente Amplio coalition’s support base, as a result of his support for the construction of an open-pit iron ore  mine project. While Mujica contends that the project will bring in much-needed revenue and further economic development, local farmers and environmentalists say it will contaminate the soil in the surrounding area.