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Finally, Argentina Has a Law on Access to Public Information

By Daniel Gutman

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 28 2017 (IPS) – After 15 long years of public campaigns and debates in which different political, social and business sectors held marches and counter-protests, Argentina finally has a new law that guarantees access to public information.

This step forward must now be reflected in reality, in this South American country where one of the main social demands is greater transparency on the part of the authorities.

The Law on the Right of Access to Public Information, which considers “all government-held information” to be public, was approved by Congress in September last year and enters into force Friday Sept. 29.

Eduardo Bertoni stressed the importance of the new law. He is the academic appointed by the government of President Mauricio Macri to lead the new Agency for Access to Public Information, which will operate within the executive branch, although “with operational autonomy,” according to the law.

“There are already 113 countries that have right of access to information laws and 90 countries have incorporated it into their constitutions,” Bertoni said during the public hearing where his appointment was discussed.

Bertoni, a lawyer with a great deal of experience regarding the right to information, served as Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIADH) between 2002 and 2005.

“We must now encourage society to demand more information from the authorities. And it is essential to push for better organisation of the public archives, because if we do not find the information people seek, we will fail,” he added.

The text is broad in terms of the list of institutions legally bound to respond to requests for access to information: besides the various branches of the state, it includes companies, political parties, trade unions, universities and any private entity to which public funds have been allocated, including public service concessionaires.

The Agency was created to ensure compliance with the law. Its functions include advising people who seek public information and assisting them with their request.

“This was clearly a pending issue for Argentina. It is incomprehensible that the governments of Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and Cristina Fernández (2007-2015) did not push for approval of this law, which should be an incentive for provinces and municipalities to do the same, since very few have regulations on access to public information,” Guillermo Mastrini, an expert on this question, told IPS.

For Mastrini, a former director of Communication Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires, “this does not change the worrying scenario with respect to the right to information, since the government is regulating by decree issues related to audiovisual communication services in a way that does not favor plurality and transparency.”

The bill was sent to Congress by the government a few months after Macri took office in December 2015, and passed with large majorities in both legislative chambers.

Until now, at the national level, there was only decree 1172, signed in 2003 by Kirchner with the aim of “improving the quality of democracy”, which was not only below the status of a law, but only covered the executive branch with regard to the obligation to provide information.

José Crettaz, a journalist and the coordinator of the Center for Studies on the Convergence of Communications, told IPS that “Néstor Kirchner’s decree, which applied to the executive branch, worked very well at first, but then public officials began to leave most requests for information unanswered.”

“Now we are seeing a huge step forward, since the law encompasses all branches of the state, and I see a government with a different attitude. The decisive thing will be how the law is implemented. The only valid criterion should be: if there is public money involved, it is public information,” he said.

The law was passed after dozens of bills on access to information were introduced in Congress in recent years. The first was presented under the government of Fernando de la Rua (1999-2001), with the support of a network of civil society organisations, but with little backing from journalists.

The initiative obtained preliminary approval from the lower house of Congress in 2003, passed to the Senate and then the main Argentine media outlets joined the public campaign demanding that it be approved. However, they later distanced themselves from the bill.

They did so, Bertoni recalled in a paper written in 2011 for the World Bank, when a senator warned that the media should also respond to requests for information submitted by any member of the public, as they receive state advertising, which is considered a subsidy.

In 2004, the Senate approved the bill, but with modifications that included private entities among the subjects obligated to provide information, and sent it back to the lower house, where it was shelved. Another bill was passed by the Senate in 2010, but it also failed to prosper.

Now one thing that stood out is that just two days before the law went into effect, the government modified it through a questioned channel: based on “a decree of necessity and urgency”, putting the new Agency in the orbit of the chief of the cabinet of ministers.

“The government thus gave a lower status to the Agency, which according to law was to depend directly on the Presidency of the Nation; the decision, moreover, cannot be taken by decree when Congress is in session,” said Damián Loreti, professor of Right to Information at the University of Buenos Aires.

“That the law is in force is good. But I am concerned about a number of things, such as not including among its objectives a guarantee for the exercise of other rights, such as housing or sexual and reproductive rights. The model law of the Organisation of American States was not followed,” he told IPS.

For Sebastián Lacunza, the last director of the Buenos Aires Herald, a well-respected English-language newspaper that closed this year, “in a country that does not have a culture of transparency, there is a risk that the law will fail.”

“This government promised a regeneration of the country’s institutions, but in some aspects it ended up aggravating the shortcomings of the previous administration, which was not prone to being open with information,” he told IPS.

In his view, “in a context of global crisis in the media industry and a shrinking of plurality of information, the most important thing is that there is an active state that combats the concentration of the media in a few hands.”

Source: Inter-Press Service (IPS).

Link: http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/09/finally-argentina-law-access-public-information/.

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Abundant fish draw 1 million penguins to Argentine peninsula

February 18, 2017

PUNTA TOMBO, Argentina (AP) — More than a million penguins have traveled to Argentina’s Punta Tombo peninsula during this year’s breeding season, drawn by an unusual abundance of small fish. Local officials say that’s a record number in recent years for the world’s largest colony of Magellanic penguins, offering an especially stunning spectacle for the tens of thousands of people who visit the reserve annually.

The peninsula’s tiny islets are well-suited to nesting and have sardines and anchovies close to the shoreline. The flightless birds come on shore in September and October and stay while the males and females take turns caring for their eggs and hunting for food.

The warm-weather birds breed in large colonies in southern Argentina and Chile and migrate north as far as southwestern Brazil between March and September. They are around 20 inches (50 centimeters) tall and have a broad crescent of white feathers that extends from just above each eye to the chin and a small area of pink on the face.

Argentine leader mentions Falklands in chat with British PM

September 21, 2016

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Argentine President Mauricio Macri said he spoke informally with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday and brought up the dialogue the countries have re-established in hopes of resolving the dispute over the Falklands Islands.

Macri told reporters the encounter after a United Nations lunch was “a minute” and “very informal.” The two leaders had a similar encounter 10 days ago at the G-20 summit in China. He separately told the official Argentine news agency Telam that he greeted May and told her that “he is ready to start an open a dialogue that includes, of course, the issue of the sovereignty of the Malvinas.” The islands are referred to as the Malvinas in Argentina.

Macri said the British leader responded with a “yes, that we should start to talk,” according to Telam. Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra later cautioned that while the sovereignty of the disputed islands is something to be discussed with Britain, it would be “a big step to say that the issue is on the table.”

There was no comment from the British government. Tensions between Argentina and Britain have eased since Argentine President Cristina Fernandez left office and Macri assumed the post promising a less-confrontational stance.

Last week, the two governments announced that they had agreed to lift restrictions affecting the islands, in a thawing of relations. The sides agreed to increase the number of flights between the Falklands and Argentina, adding one new stop a month in each direction.

Argentina lost a 1982 war with Britain after Argentine troops seized the South Atlantic archipelago. Argentina claims Britain has illegally occupied the islands since 1833. Britain disputes the claim and says Argentina is ignoring the wishes of the 3,000 residents, who wish to remain British.

Portugal rises to No. 6 in FIFA rankings, Argentina leads

July 14, 2016

ZURICH (AP) — European champion Portugal has risen two places to No. 6 in the FIFA rankings, and Copa America winner Chile stays fifth. Argentina is still No. 1 despite losing to Chile in the final for the second straight year.

Belgium remains second after losing to Wales in the European Championship quarterfinals. Wales climbed 15 places to 11th. Colombia at No. 3 and Germany at No. 4 are in an unchanged top five, while Euro 2016 runner-up France is seventh, up 10 places. Iceland is at best-ever 22nd, up 12.

Mexico leads CONCACAF nations at No. 14, and Copa America semifinalist United States has risen six to 25th. Algeria is Africa’s best at No. 32; No. 39 Iran leads Asia; and Oceania champion New Zealand has risen 54 places to No. 93.

Argentine court sentences ex-dictator for Operation Condor

May 27, 2016

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina’s last dictator and 14 other former military officials were sentenced to prison for human rights crimes, marking the first time a court has ruled that Operation Condor was a criminal conspiracy to kidnap and forcibly disappear people across international borders.

The covert operation was launched in the 1970s by six South American dictatorships that used their secret police networks in a coordinated effort to track down their opponents abroad and eliminate them. Many leftist dissidents had sought refuge in neighboring countries and elsewhere.

An Argentine federal court on Friday sentenced former junta leader Reynaldo Bignone, 88, to 20 years in prison for being part of an illicit association, kidnapping and abusing his powers in the forced disappearance of more than 100 people. The ex-general who ruled Argentina in 1982-1983 is already serving life sentences for multiple human rights violations during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

In the landmark trial, 14 other former military officials received prison sentences of eight to 25 years for criminal association, kidnapping and torture. They include Uruguayan army colonel, Manuel Cordero Piacentini, who allegedly tortured prisoners inside Automotores Orletti, the Buenos Aires repair shop where many captured leftists were interrogated under orders from their home countries. Two of the accused were absolved.

The sentences are seen as a milestone because they mark the first time a court has proved that Operation Condor was an international criminal conspiracy carried out by the U.S.-backed regimes in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

“Operation Condor affected my life, my family,” Chilean Laura Elgueta told The Associated Press outside the court room. Her brother, Luis Elgueta, had taken refuge in Buenos Aires from Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s forces, only to be forcibly disappeared in Buenos Aires in 1976 as part of Operation Condor.

“This trial is very meaningful because it’s the first time that a court is ruling against this sinister Condor plan,” she said. The investigation was launched in the 1990s when an amnesty law still protected many of the accused. Argentina’s Supreme Court overturned the amnesty in 2005 at the urging of then-President Nestor Kirchner.

“Forty years after Operation Condor was formally founded, and 16 years after the judicial investigation began, this trial produced valuable contributions to knowledge of the truth about the era of state terrorism and this regional criminal network,” said the Buenos Aires-based Center for Legal and Social Studies, which is part of the legal team representing plaintiffs in the case.

During the case, several defendants either died or were removed from the judicial process. Since the bodies of many victims have never been found, Argentine prosecutors argued that the crime of covering up their deaths continues today, and that statutory time limits don’t apply.

The victims included Maria Claudia Irureta Goyena, the daughter-in-law of Argentine poet Juan Gelman, who was pregnant when she was kidnapped and held for months inside Automotores Orletti before an Argentine air force plane took her to Uruguay. She gave birth there, and then was disappeared. Decades passed before her daughter, Macarena Gelman, discovered her own true identity.

A key piece of evidence in the case was a declassified FBI agent’s cable, sent in 1976, that described in detail the conspiracy to share intelligence and eliminate leftists across South America. Operation Condor was launched in November 1975 by Chile’s Pinochet who enlisted other dictators in South America. But the covert program went much further: the U.S. government later determined that Chilean agents involved in Condor killed the country’s former ambassador Orlando Letelier and his U.S. aide Ronni Moffitt in Washington, D.C., in September 1976. Operation Condor’s agents also tracked other exiles across Europe in efforts to eliminate them.

“This is a great ruling, with stiff sentences,” Luz Zaldua, a lawyer representing families of the victims. “It has established that Condor was a supranational criminal association, and that’s important — not just for our country but for all countries that have been part of this operation.”

__ Associated Press video journalist Paul Byrne and AP photographer Natacha Pisarenko contributed to this report.

Argentine FM says Falklands no obstacle to becoming UN chief

May 27, 2016

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina’s foreign minister said Friday she believes there’s no conflict of interest between her bid to be the next U.N. secretary-general and her work pressing her country’s sovereignty claim over the disputed Falkland Islands.

Buenos Aires has long claimed as its own the Atlantic archipelago, a British overseas territory it calls the Malvinas. Argentina staged an ill-fated invasion of the islands in 1982 that was repelled by Britain.

As foreign minister Susana Malcorra has lobbied for Argentina’s claim and recently brought it up when President Mauricio Macri met with British Prime Minister David Cameron at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The South American country regularly raises the issue at the U.N.

“What we have been saying regarding the Malvinas is what we have said since the day we took office … and I see no incompatibility” between that and becoming secretary-general, Malcorra said at a news conference, without explaining further.

The secretary-general is chosen by the 193-member General Assembly on the recommendation of the 15-member Security Council, of which the United Kingdom is a permanent member. Traditionally the secretary-general job has rotated among regions, and people from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe have all held the post. Some in eastern Europe, including Russia, argue that their region has never had one of their own as secretary-general and it is their turn.

A group of 56 nations has also been lobbying for the United Nations to get its first female chief. Malcorra is a former U.N. undersecretary-general and chief of staff to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose term ends Dec. 31.

Falkland Island lawmakers reject Argentine claim to islands

April 01, 2016

PORT STANLEY, Falkland Islands (AP) — Lawmakers in the far-flung Falkland Islands are rejecting Argentina’s claim that a recent decision by a U.N. commission strengthens the South American nation’s claim over the archipelago.

Earlier this week, the Argentine government said that the U.N. commission on the limits of the continental shelf had sided with Argentina in a dispute with Great Britain going back decades. The government said the commission had ratified a 2009 Argentine report that fixed the limit of its territory at 200 to 350 miles from its coast.

On Monday, Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, previously chief of staff to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, posted a map on Twitter that showed the islands included in Argentina’s continental shelf territory.

Like with everything related to the islands, even what the extension of territory would include is in dispute. The report itself has not been made public. The U.N. “has agreed to continental shelf extension for Argentina in those areas north of the Falklands Islands that are not the subject of competing claims,” Mike Summers, one the local legislative assembly members that govern the British Overseas Territory, told The Associated Press during an interview on Thursday.

Summers added the decision “has no effect for the sovereign position of the Falklands.” In 1982, Argentina invaded and was then routed by British troops. Saturday marks the 34th anniversary of the war. Friday night, Argentine veterans of the war planned to hold a vigil in Buenos Aires.

Islanders and the British government have long rejected Argentina’s claims and refused to negotiate. While the commission’s recommendation is non-binding, it adds more weight to Argentina’s contention.

More than just bitter politics, sovereignty over the islands could become very important because of oil exploration in the surrounding waters. After Argentina’s announcement, share prices of several oil companies briefly dipped.

Argentine lawmakers hailed what the decision could mean for government revenues. On his Facebook page, President Mauricio Macri said the extension will “permit us to defend the resources of our sea, property of each and every Argentine.”

Stephen Luxton, mineral resources director for the Falkland Islands government, said the latest chapter in the longstanding dispute would have no impact on drilling. “It is very much business as usual for all of our licensees,” he said. “It will have no effect on any resources in the Falkland Islands.”

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