When it comes to public access to government information, Costa Rica receives a failing grade.
In a recent study by free-press experts, state ministries and agencies were quizzed on what they do to provide public information – such as budgets, salaries, contract details, administrative procedures, etc. – to the press and the public.
“We had to pursue them and call and ask if they received it and resend the questionnaire. Even then we got a response of less than 50 percent of the institutions,” said Carolina Carazo, who headed up the study.
Carazo, director of the University of Costa Rica’s School of Mass Communication Sciences, said the results of the study were “alarming.”
“When talking about access to public information, already that is unacceptable,” she said. “The study shows that if a journalist doing a study for an institute has trouble accessing this information, for a citizen it multiplies and is much more difficult.”
The survey, funded by the Press and Freedom of Expression Institute (IPLEX) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), was made up of 28 questions, each asking if the ministry or agency makes information available to the public as required by law.
For example, the institutions were asked if they publish or make available their monthly or yearly operating budgets, or the finances of the ministry or agency.
“Fifty-seven percent of the institutions studied publish absolutely no information on their budgets. Just three institutions that answered had budget information,” she continued. “Forty-two percent of the institutions don’t make any information available for revenue or expenses.”
Questions were assigned points, with a total of 100 points possible.
Only two agencies – the National Oil Refinery (RECOPE) and the Ombudswoman’s Office – scored 70 or better.
RECOPE scored 70 points, and the Ombudswoman’s Office garnered 76.5. The majority of those that responded scored less than 50 percent.
The Ministry of Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET) scored the lowest, with just 4 points. Carazo said she is not surprised at the results.
“Clearly, we do not have a culture of accountability,” she said.
The survey was sent to 16 ministries and 12 agencies in April 2006. After three months of follow-up, only seven ministries and seven agencies responded, Carazo said.
However, she noted that the study was launched just one month before the handover of the presidency from former President Abel Pacheco to President Oscar Arias.
“I think that could have been a limiting factor, but I believe that if the study were done again, participation would still be just as low,” Carazo said.
She said the study was undertaken at that time to coincide with IPLEX’s publication of its first book, “The Right to Access Public Information in the Costa Rican Legal System,” by Jorge Córdoba.
The organization presented the book and the study at a recent press conference, saying both are further evidence for the need for a “modern, open and vigorous” freedom of information law.