Dark Clouds Over São Paulo

Secret Documents in the Alckmin Administration

by Lucas Valente da Costa

Governor Alckmin says confidential documents are being reavaluated (photo credit: Ciete Silverio/A2img)

When it took effect in 2012, Brazil’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was seen as  a revolution in the fight against secrecy and bureaucracy. Yet, albeit necessary, the law has since proved to be insufficient in ensuring transparency and accountability in the public sector. In 2014, Transparency Audit Network, an initiative based at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) in Rio de Janeiro, submitted over 500 electronically freedom of information requests to eight jurisdictions[1]. Only 31 percent got full responses – a very low rate that shows governments still have a long way to go to comply with transparency regulations.

The case of public documents in the State of São Paulo last October is an example of how poor transparency may cast a heavy shadow over free access to public information. Documents concerning the public transportation system, the water company, and the military police were classified as secret or top secret by state authorities. The decision came at a moment when the administration of governor Geraldo Alckmin is facing an unprecedented water crisis and criticism for delays in delivering new subway lines.

The public transportation documents mainly refer to the subway system and include impact and monitoring studies, as well as police reports. By declaring these documents top secret, state authorities restricted public access for 25 years – a controversial measure when 11 companies are being investigated for forming a cartel to obtain contracts worth R$ 1.75 billion (US$ 450 million) from São Paulo’s Metropolitan Train Company.

State authorities have also limited public access to documents from the state water utility company, Sabesp. Although the information referred only to water supply projects and other operational and technical procedures, Sabesp claimed that opening the documents to the general public could have national security implications, including an increased risk of terrorist attacks – a very unlikely outcome that only serves as a distraction from the real issue: the state of São Paulo is currently facing its worst drought in more than 80 years.

Finally, the Secretary of Public Safety has determined that documents about the distribution of the police force are to be restricted for public access for 15 years. To make matters worse, state authorities enforced a century-long restriction in documents on the penitentiary administration. Allegedly, the information would put the population at risk, but three civil society organizations working with public safety – Instituto Sou da Paz, Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública and Núcleo de Estudos da Violência, from the University of São Paulo (USP) – argued that these documents are not a threat to citizens and should therefore remain public.

Following disapproval from the public opinion and negative repercussions, governor Geraldo Alckmin, who is the head of these three institutions, said he was not aware of the decisions and that public officials acted without his consent. Sabesp’s restrictions have now been revoked, while public transportation and police documents are currently being “reevaluated.”

The Freedom of Information law allows documents to be made confidential when public release would cause a specific harm, such as damage to personal privacy or risk to the national security. The State of São Paulo has used the national security card to justify its decision, but the argument is weak as there is no well-founded fear that these institutions are threaten by terrorists or other criminal organizations.

So why hiding these documents from the public eye now? It may be that authorities have grown concerned about increasing accountability and punishment of white-collar crimes. With Operação Lava Jato gaining momentum in jailing politicians and exposing money laundering schemes, government officials are in the spotlight. In trying to hide information from the public, the State of São Paulo has only brought more attention to problems that remain unresolved by the administration. Now it is expected that issues like the water crisis, delays in new subway lines, and police violence will increasingly put the state government under scrutiny and legal investigation.

Lucas Valente da Costa is a Master of International Affairs dual degree candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University, and at the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA) at Sciences Po, France. 

[1] The federal government, the federal district, the state of São Paulo and its capital, the state of Rio de Janeiro and its capital, and the state of Minas Gerais and its capital, Belo Horizonte. For more information, see Encouraging Freedom of Information Movements in Brazil.