Madrid, 2 October 2020The global news headlines might be talking about the worrying rise in coronavirus infections in Madrid – and the new lockdown – but there is also a lot of good news for transparency activists coming out of Spain this week, beautifully timed to coincide with International Access to Information Day on 28 September. 

Access Info’s Director Helen Darbishire reports on the latest developments. 

First off, on Monday 28 September, the Minister for Public Function Carolina Darias announced that Spain will sign and ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents, something Access Info has repeatedly called for. This commitment has been included in the new OGP Action Plan, with a firm deadline for completing ratification by 31 December 2021.

Spain’s next Open Government Partnership Action Plan was also presented to the public on Monday, for a last round of comments before it is finalised. It is one of the first ever OGP Action Plans to have a four-year timeframe (instead of the normal two years), and is highly ambitious in scope, including reform of the Transparency Law, and new laws on lobby regulation and whistleblower protection, piloting of a legislative footprint, and the opening of key data including the company register and some health service data. Many of the commitments reflect proposals from civil society.

Spain’s middling Transparency Law is one of the youngest in Europe, having coming into force only on 10 December 2014. It scores just 73 out of 150 points on the global RTI Rating, there are still too few requests, and there is poor implementation. The situation is complicated by a multiplicity of regional laws and even municipal rules. Nevertheless, the past few years have seen a growing awareness of the importance of transparency to fight corruption and participate in decision making.

The clamour for a stronger access to information law in Spain only increased during the past few months of the Covid-19 pandemic, when civil society, journalists, and the public we angered by the suspension of timeframes for processing requests during the lockdown. The need for reliable, timely, data on what is happening, on how decisions are being taken and how funds are being spent, put transparency high on the public agenda, and this seems to have given added impetus to government commitments to increase levels of openness.

The third transparency announcement from the Spanish government was of a candidate for the Presidency of the Transparency Council, a post that has been vacant for three years since the untimely death of the first President, Esther Arizmendi in November 2017. Although civil society is calling for a more open process, with more candidates presented, it is step forward. The candidate, José Luis Rodríguez Álvarez, is a former director of Spain’s Data Protection Agency. It is to be hoped that he will aim to secure powers similar to those he had in his previous post, such as being able to inspect documents and to sanction non-compliance with the Transparency Council’s decisions. A stronger Council could be achieved with the reform of the Transparency Law during the course of the next OGP Action Plan.

During the course of the week, Spain hosted the International Transparency Congress, originally scheduled to take place in the Canaries, but now online. The event brought together hundreds of participants, showing how the openness community in Spain has grown in recently years, including civil society, public officials, information commissioners, and academics.

A meeting of Spain’s 100-member pro-transparency platform the Coalición Pro Acceso, held as part of the Congress, was attended by a government representative who noted during the debate that the question of recognition of a fundamental right of access to information is not off the table, although it’s something that needs to be discussed with experts in constitutional law.

Access Info regularly points out to the Spanish government that international human rights bodies, the European Court of Human Rights, the UN Human Rights Committee, and UNESCO all say it’s a fundamental right, intrinsically linked to freedom of expression, which is indeed in the Spanish Constitution.

It was Spain’s lack of acknowledgement that access to information is a fundamental right that allowed the Transparency Law to be suspended as collateral damage when the Spanish government declared a State of Alert in March. The outcry might have helped tip the balance: if there is an opportunity coming out of this crisis, it’s that maybe, just maybe, Spain will now take seriously the demand from civil society, journalists and – importantly – the public, and to give due recognition to this key democratic right.