Dr. Anitza Freitez is Professor of Demography and Director of the Economic and Social Sciences Institute at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. I recently sat down with her to talk about a little discussed aspect of transparency and freedom of information: the access policy researchers have to public information.
There is a lot of discussion these days regarding the importance of freedom of information in a functioning democracy. But that discussion usually focuses on budgets, yearly reports, financial accounts, and who has influence on governmental decisions. What is at issue with respect to policy research?
For us to carry out relevant research we need access to databases. Yet, our National Statistics Institute [INE] has progressively restricted the supply of information. While in other countries their household surveys are available on web pages that anyone can have access to, here that is not the case. The administrative registry where you find the numbers of births and deaths—information that is vital, for example, for understanding reproductive patterns of vulnerable populations and health issues—is not open, or is open only to a minimal degree. Yearly mortality ledgers, information on morbidity, epidemiological alerts—all of that information has been increasingly restricted.
We went for a whole year in which the Ministry of Health decided not to publish the epidemiological alert, which is the compulsory registry of certain diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, dengue that every health center is obliged to report on a weekly basis. It was taken off the Ministry’s web page because they claimed that it was being used for purposes other than research.
On migration issues, the Identification and Immigration Service (SAIME) put a note on its web page that said that entrance and exit numbers from the country were of exclusive access to agencies of public administration. Therefore, since the 1990s we do not know the annual migratory balance of Venezuela. We do not know how many Venezuelans leave and how many foreigners come in, their nationality or whether they stay.
We can look at almost any issue and we will find the same scarcity and lack of access to information: problems with its availability, the timing of its availability, and what is made available. In the year 2010 a national demographic survey was conducted with the support of the United Nations Population Fund, but that survey was kept shelved and still today we do not have access to it. Just yesterday we were handed the 2011 Census, and the data is limited to already calculated indicators and charts. But what we need is access to the raw data so that we can generate the indicators that we need according to the goals of our research and according to the segment of the population we are looking at.
And why is this happening? Why is the government limiting access to this type of information?
This is a government that is very sensitive to criticism. When you do research you don’t do it to sweeten the pill for whoever is in government, but to show what is being done well, to diagnose situations, to identify problems that need interventions. That’s what universities are for. Institutions that do research need freedom of information; they need information without censorship.
And what they want to give you are charts, not the data?
Charts, and there is very little you can do with them. They generally reflect an average of the country that says very little about how to guide interventions. We need to go down to the regional level and distinguish socioeconomic segments. It’s really no use if you give me a chart with only basic cross-tabulations. They come as PDFs or as images, and you end up having to transcribe the information or cracking those files if you can.
But is there not a legal framework for this?
According to the law, the information produced by public institutions is public domain and everyone should have access to it. The restriction of epidemiological alerts gave rise to appeals to international organisms by human rights groups and especially by organizations that work with HIV patients. There was a ruling that forced the Ministry of Health to again publish the alerts on its webpage.
And have they complied?
They have. But the issue is how they have complied. They put up the information for one week—because the information has to updated weekly. But at any given moment I should be able to find there 52 weeks of the epidemiological alert. However they upload some weeks, they take down others. Or when they are there you can’t download the files.
Translated by Hugo Pérez Hernáiz