Brazil changes freedom of information act

Lower-ranking public servants are awarded power to assign top-level secrecy to documents.

Brazil's freedom of information law has seen significant changes with a new decree signed by interim president Hamilton Mourão while incumbent Jair Bolsonaro takes part in the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The decree published today (24) allows ministers and executive secretaries of the various government departments to transfer classification responsibility for documents containing privileged information to lower-ranking public servants.

Government staff below ministers and executive secretaries, as well as heads of organizations such as foundations and publicly-held companies, will now be able to assign the ultra-secret level (the highest in the current classification) to documents for a 25-year period, which can be extended for the same amount of time.

Slightly less senior public servants will also be able to classify documents as secret, which remain so for 15 years. About 1,300 government staff will now be able to assign top secrecy levels to classified documents.

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The transfer of the ability to assign top-level secrecy could considerably extend the list of such documents. Previously, only the president, the vice-president, ministers of state, commanders of the Armed Forces and heads of diplomatic missions abroad had that power.

When Brazil's freedom of information act was originally enforced in 2011, the aim was to make government information more transparent and accessible to any citizen or company who requested it, without the need for justification.

Widening the functions and government departments that would be able to classify privileged information is something that had been requested by the Armed Forces when the regulations were created. This was denied at the time, as well as the power to transfer classification responsibility.

The creation of the original regulations took the findings of a working group involving several government departments into account. A transparency council that included independent organizations and academia was also created for policy enforcement and development. These stakeholders were also present on the occasion the decree was signed.

The latest decree was signed by the interim president, Army general Mourão, alongside chief of staff Onyx Lorenzoni. The decision was made without prior consultation to the transparency council or the civil society about the number of public servants that will now have decision power over classified information.