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Privacy for Government but Not for Hondurans: A Culture of Submission

By: Gina Kawas - @GinaKawas - Apr 2, 2014, 5:15 am

Español In January of 2014, an Official Secrets Act passed in the Honduran Congress. This new law imposes penalties for disclosing classified information, on the basis that it could interfere with national security and defense. But in reality, it limits the functions of the Institute for Access to Public Information and grants discretion to government officials by allowing them to declare any information as “secret” for 20 years or more. The different categories of information are: reserved, confidential, secret, and top secret.

When the law was first introduced to public opinion, it obviously sparked harsh criticism from diverse sectors of society, given that it represents a clear violation of the right to access public information. It presents a major setback for the country in terms of transparency and accountability.

This, however, should come as no shocker: exactly one year ago, in March of 2013, amendments to the Honduran Telecommunications Law were presented to Congress (emulating the existing law in Ecuador) to regulate free speech. Journalists and several civil society organizations, with international support — including members of the Inter-American Press Society — opposed the law, which in the end failed to pass, after several months of discussion.

After some meetings with the newly elected president, Juan Orlando Hernández, the president of the Institute for Access to Public Information, Doris Imelda Madrid, withdrew from her initial reaction of protest, to a mellower stance, arguing that we as citizens must comply with the law.

President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras
President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras in March, 2014. Source: @Presidencia_HN.

Obviously, citizens have the right to be informed about the actions and attitudes of their rulers; also, those in government have the obligation to use monitoring mechanisms and enforce sanctions in the case of any proven illegal behavior.

Even though the actions of democratically elected governments should reflect, in the implementation of public policies, the social demands of the citizens, in Latin America, reality is as Machiavelli warned: the more powerful a man gets, the greater his authority, increasing the temptation and chance of abusing this power.

In Honduras, one of the most corrupt countries in the world, transparency is ever so important, because it is a mechanism to reduce government officials’ criminality and excessive power. The more strictly officials are observed, the better they behave; we need this policy of accountability to punish ineffective or dishonest rulers, and reward those who show efficiency and results in serving the interests of their constituents within the legal framework.

If we — the people — have access to information, then we have the power. That is why rulers are so reluctant to release it.

All civil society organizations created to promote transparency and accountability in Honduras should be more active, not be intimidated, and articulate the demand that government never coerce individuals, except when the purpose is to enforce the law. States must not be overreaching, and they should seek to serve man, not vice versa, and promote individual autonomy rather than regulate it.

Parallel to the Secrets Act, a bill aimed at strictly regulating the sale of SIM card and cell phone chips, was recently introduced in the Honduran Congress, under the pretense that this would help fight extortion. This law demands that mobile phone companies provide the government with a reliable database of individuals who purchase SIM cards, including their photograph, fingerprint, and a copy of their identity cards. The bill also contemplates having access to the phone’s stored emails.

This not only portrays excessive state intervention, it reveals the true intentions of the government: to control and monitor private telephone conversations, not to serve constituents. If approved, it would violate privacy, but it would also lead to a significant decrease in sales; people living in rural areas would have to travel to urban cities to comply with all the new requirements and purchase the cell phone chip.

Further, prices would rise, if we account for the heavy expense to cell phone companies for the installation of necessary equipment to comply with the newly established regulations. All this will further undermine the country’s competitiveness.

What’s baffling about both situations is that neither cell phone companies nor the population are protesting against such arbitrary measures. One can’t help but wonder if such submission and apathy are a result of fear, or is it just plain disinterest?

These developments also demonstrate the authoritarian vein that Juan Orlando Hernández has: he is concentrating power in a rather pernicious manner, and no one is stopping him. Granted, one cannot deny that he has had very good initiatives, but perhaps they have served as a decoy to hide his true intentions. Consider that just two days ago, former President Rafael Leonardo Callejas, one of Hernández’s closest advisers, declared the possibility of a plebiscite to discuss and consider non-consecutive presidential reelection in Honduras.

Gina Kawas Gina Kawas

Gina Kawas is a Young Voices Advocate from Honduras and a graduate student of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. She has coauthored the book Freedom for the Entrepreneur, published by ANDI and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. Follow @GinaKawas.