January 24, 2019 / 5:54 PM / a year ago

Brazil decree weakens law aimed at holding government to account

BRASILIA, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Brazil’s new far-right administration dramatically increased the number of public servants allowed to designate information as “secret” and “ultra-secret” on Thursday, weakening a transparency law enacted in 2011 to hold government to account.

The decree signed by Vice President Hamilton Mourao, standing in while President Jair Bolsonaro is at the World Economic Forum in Davos, allows classified designations to be made by politically appointed civil servants, agency heads and top executives at public companies.

Previously, the “ultra-secret” classification could only be made by the president, vice president, cabinet-level officials, military commanders and heads of permanent diplomatic and consular missions abroad. Those allowed to make the “secret” designation was only slightly larger.

Thursday’s decree, handed down as Bolsonaro declared a new era of transparency in Brazilian politics and business in Davos, means more public records are likely to be put out of the reach of civic groups, journalists and ordinary citizens.

“This decree is a step backward with respect to transparency, access to information and social control, and this decree simply must be revoked,” said Gil Castello Branco, head of government transparency group Contas Abertas.

The move modifies Brazil’s 2011 Access to Information Law, passed to guarantee access to information in local, state and federal government records in the name of strengthening democracy. The law created exceptions for “ultra-secret” information, which is withheld from the public for 25 years, and “secret” information, sealed for 15 years.

Bolsonaro, who took office on Jan. 1, has embraced an antagonistic relationship with the press and non-government organizations on the campaign trail and now in office, disparaging unfriendly outlets as “fake news” and threatening to cut public advertising in specific newspapers.

“You need to have a balance between security and transparency,” Mourao told reporters after the decree was published. “This just reduces bureaucracy when you classify secret documents.” (Reporting by Maria Carolina Marcello Writing by Jake Spring Editing by Brad Haynes and Sonya Hepinstall)

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