Jensen: The triumph of transparency

By By Matteo Jensen

By Matteo Jensen

What is the difference between an illusionist and a junta?

Only a junta can really make its subjects disappear.

The comedy (and tragedy) of this joke lies in its accuracy. Throughout Argentina, thousands of people, mostly young, “permanently disappeared” during the tragic period of military rule in the 1970s and 1980s. The juntas brutally quashed dissent and stifled debate to create a secure environment. No neighborhood was safe. No family was immune to these egregious government invasions. And the promised security didn’t come. Instead, Argentines lived in a constant state of fear, both of their government and of the militants who violently opposed it.

The restoration of democracy to Argentina brought peace to the nation, but it took time to calm the public psyche. Gradually the old habits of Hispanic hospitality were restored. Some of my earliest and happiest childhood memories are of this period, when, once again, doors were left unlocked, allowing neighbors to enter freely to share a juicy bit of gossip, drink a cup of mate or sit down for a late family meal. I also remember seeing many people, even close family friends, with a look of apprehension and unspoken terror — so confusing to me as a young child — that I later realized was the mark of unresolved anguish and fear for loved ones who were never to return.

The families of the “disappeared” had little recourse in their quest to find out what had happened to their missing relatives. The courts were closed to them. Public institutions were rife with corruption, and the central government refused to reveal the information that had been collected. The Argentine Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the first of its kind, failed to produce the desired disclosure, and the nation agonized over its missing sons and daughters.

For more than a decade, tension simmered as Argentines mounted protest after protest to obtain the information necessary to heal these deep wounds. Finally, in 1994, Argentina’s leaders called a constitutional convention to amend the nation’s constitution. Unity and compromise prevailed at this gathering, and citizens were granted sweeping new rights and protections under Argentina’s federalist system. Among the new articles approved at the convention was a provision guaranteeing habeas data.

Habeas data is a relatively new right. It literally means “you shall have the data.” The purpose of habeas data is to ensure information self-determination. It accomplishes this by granting individuals the judicial power to control their data. Information collected by the government, public institutions and some companies that operate in the public sphere can be requested by citizens to verify its accuracy, ensure individual safety and provide an effective check against excessive government power.

Twenty years ago, habeas data was born out of the Brazilian struggle for democracy and was first enshrined in that nation’s 1988 constitution. Since that time, many other nations have adopted this transformative measure. Paraguay, Argentina, Honduras and the Philippines have also found this to be a necessary and useful remedy to curb government excesses and facilitate national reconciliation.

As we enter a fully digital era, the issue of information control takes on even greater significance. With new methods of obtaining and storing ever-growing amounts of information, there is also increasingly greater potential for this information to be abused. Safeguards are breached almost as quickly as they can be put in place.

Government secrecy is not a tenable solution to this problem. Secrecy merely makes it opaque, without bringing any sort of resolution to a dilemma that affects our whole society. Transparency is absolutely vital for the continued maintenance of our democracy and collective security.

However, our federal, state and local authorities have moved in the opposite direction, using the guise of security to curb civil rights and dispense with discussion and debate. The Bush administration has sought to neuter the Freedom of Information Act, undermine habeas corpus and emasculate the Constitution with legislation such as the Patriot Act. At the state level, legislators have stripped the Government Records Access and Management Act of much of its efficacy and tried to override the will of the people time and time again.

Meanwhile, on campus, the administration of U President Michael Young has lobbied aggressively for the implementation of rigid restraints on First Amendment liberties. Protest, already tightly circumscribed, has effectively been stifled on and off campus, and freedom of speech has been curtailed by the administration’s efforts. This seems especially unsuitable for an institution supposedly dedicated to academic advancement and intellectual freedom.

We cannot allow this trend to continue. Right now, the obstacles being erected are small impediments to the exercise of our cherished freedoms, but that will not always be the case if they are left unchallenged.

The United States does not have to endure brutal dictatorship for its citizens to recognize the need for the substantive protections offered by the writ of habeas data. Remember, the Latin habeas refers to you. You should have the information and the power that underlies it. Obtaining both will require decisive and coordinated action. Carpe diem.

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