Don’t LAI to me: a newsletter to navigate Brazil's access to information law

by Nadya Hernández
Mar 21, 2019 in Investigative Journalism
Stacks of paper

In Brazil, the Access to Information Law (LAI) was passed in 2012, creating mechanisms for any person or organization to request and gain access to public information from federal institutions. This law has the purpose to bring more transparency and improve the way citizens gain knowledge about the government.

However, the creation of legal mechanisms does not necessarily lead to its successful implementation. Often journalists and researchers face several challenges to access the information they request from public institutions. The most common challenges include receiving documents that are hard to read because of huge watermarks, or being denied information by employees that argue that the compilation process would take years.

Are journalists prepared to deal with these challenges? Are citizens getting the most from the information available? What are the right steps to appeal an initial “no” in response to a request from a government agency?

With these questions in mind, Brazilian journalists Luiz Fernando Toledo, Maria Vitória Ramos and Léo Arcoverde created a newsletter to provide tips, news and resources produced with data that was collected through LAI.  

Helping journalists find the best data available

For journalists, sources are everything. But as Toledo said, “There is a lot of open data and resources that can strengthen journalism. This data is a unique opportunity to contrast the official sources of information, and promote transparency beyond what people say.”

Don’t LAI to Me is a newsletter service to educate other journalists. Toledo and his team curate, organize and disseminate examples to provide insight on how professionals in the newsroom can use public information.

“The newsletter is a great resource to raise awareness and show ways to use LAI law in your favor,” said Daniel Bramatti, President of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji).

LAI is supposed to open information that was locked, or was hard to access, before the law was passed. Nevertheless, getting the right information using this mechanism in Brazil can be a complex process. Journalists need to be prepared to send the right request to the proper institution, track the plea and interpret the received data.

“Our main goal is to show what can be asked, what documents are available and how journalists can use them,” explained Toledo.

Made by practitioners for practitioners

Don’t LAI to Me is an initiative from public data agency Fiquem Sabendo that promotes the use of LAI and engages citizens, journalists and researchers to act as watchdogs over public powers. All four team members have experience reporting, and they understand the challenges of procuring information.

This initiative is connected to other national efforts like Achados e Pedidos, which is a digital platform created by Abraji and Transparencia Brasil to track the implementation of LAI in the country. They have a public database with the number of requests, which data has become available and the rate that public agencies answer LAI requests.

“Government, specialized institutions [and] universities have failed communicating the importance of LAI. Don’t LAI to Me has the potential to reach unusual suspects,” said Marina Atoji, executive manager of Abraji, referring to people who work in journalism but don’t generally engage with discussions on LAI.

The newsletter, launched Jan. 21, 2019, is sent every two weeks, and it currently has more than 1,000 subscribers. The team is building a community of people interested in this topic and raising the profile of the conversation around the freedom of information in Brazil.

Toledo and his colleagues are convinced that increasing the awareness of LAI in Brazil will improve the process of getting information from public agencies and create a culture of transparency. In the short term, they hope to find financial resources to sustain the newsletter and their other projects, as the team is currently all volunteers.

The LAI community beyond borders

Recently, on Mar. 19, Fiquem Sabendo announced their strategic partnership with MuckRock, a U.S.-based, news site that brings together journalists, researchers, activists and citizens to request, analyze and share government documents.

The objective is to share and translate documents obtained by the American organization that are relevant to the Brazilian audience, to create a permanent discussion environment around the application of LAI and to develop other projects to increase access to information in both countries.

Main image CC-licensed from Unsplash via Beatriz Pérez Moya.