The surrender of secrecy : explaining the emergence of strong access to information laws in Latin America
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Worldwide, the remarkable diffusion of transparency and access to information laws poses a monumental challenge to the state’s most enduringly undemocratic feature— excessive secrecy. Will recent laws lead to an effective surrender of secrecy? The incipient literature on transparency reform says little about the strength of current legislation or how strong laws emerge. This dissertation addresses these theoretical and empirical gaps. First, it articulates a theory on the political determinants of strong access to information laws. Second, employing an original evaluation, it scores the strength of twelve access to information laws advanced throughout Latin America between 2002 and 2010. Two extreme outcomes are examined in detail: a failed comprehensive reform in Argentina (1999-2005), which resulted in a limited presidential decree (2003), and the adoption of a seminal law in Mexico (2002). These cases are then compared with others across Latin America with special attention placed on Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, and Uruguay. I find considerable variance in the strength of the region’s laws: the average score is “moderately strong,” while the median and mode scores are “moderately weak.” Evidence shows that while civic coalitions and external pressure often help drive reform, they cannot explain observed variation in legal strength. Rather, I find that laws emerge more robust and earlier-on within the electoral cycle (within the first half of a president’s term of office), in countries where 1) presidents lack control over the legislature and 2) news media coverage of access to information laws is strong. By contrast, where news media coverage is weak and presidents possess strong negative agenda setting powers (partisan majorities or constitutional means of denying a vote), I find that laws tend to emerge later-on during the electoral cycle (within the last third), and are considerably weaker. I also find that press advocacy for access to information laws tended to be greater in countries where presidents were weaker and news media ownership concentration was low. The dissertation addresses key institutional preconditions for good governance and transparency reform. More specifically, it speaks to the determinants and power of the news media as an agent of democratic advancement (and stagnation), and the importance of weak leaders and partisan competition in promoting good governance reform.