Access to Public Information
Company Doe v. Public Citizen
Closed Expands Expression
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The Supreme Court of Panama granted an access to information request lodged by a congressman—before the General Directorate of the Authority of Transit and Land Transportation—, requiring specific information related to selective vehicle units (cabs) on a national level, such as the total amount of these vehicles, license plate numbers, owner’s name, E1 licenses granted (current or expired), traffic tickets, among others. The decision is the result of a habeas data procedure filed by the referred congressman against the governmental authority after the latter did not deliver the totality of the information requested within the legally established terms. In the decision, the Court determined that the partial disclosure of the information was a violation of the right of access to public information of the plaintiff and ordered the aforementioned authority to fully deliver the information requested.
On January 27, 2020, Gabriel Silva, congressman of the Republic of Panama, requested the General Directorate of the Authority of Transit and Land Transportation to provide information on the quotas of selective transportation units (cabs), specifying the license plate numbers of the vehicles, their model, and year of manufacture, as well as the name of their owners and ID numbers. Additionally, he requested “The number of E1 licenses issued; Number of E1 licenses with expired status; Delinquency for traffic tickets issued to selective transportation unit’s license plates and E1 licenses; List of all selective transport concessionaires nationwide, disaggregated by province and number of quotas assigned to each; Total number of quotas assigned per permitted route; Record of all vehicles that are recognized as selective transport, with their respective quotas, that are still under financial commitments with any local bank.”
On February 4, 2020, the aforementioned authority answered the request but failed to provide most of the information requested, without any justification why. The General Directorate of the Authority of Transit and Land Transportation only granted the information containing the full list of selective transportation units in each province in the last five years, with their license plate numbers, model, year of manufacture, names of the owners, and ID numbers. Additionally, the authority also handed over an Excel document with details about 43,769 cab quotas in 2019.
Silva filed a habeas data action before the Supreme Court of Panama, alleging a violation of his right of access to information after receiving what he considered to be a partial and confusing response.
The Supreme Court of Panama concluded that the partial delivery of the information was a violation of the applicant’s right of access to public information, and ordered the delivery of all documents within a non-extendable period of five days after the notification of the decision.
The Supreme Court of Panama had to determine whether the partial and confusing delivery of information about selective transportation units within the national territory constituted a violation of the right of access to public information of the plaintiff. For this purpose, the Court examined the arguments presented by the parties in the habeas data procedure. It also analyzed the different state obligations derived from the fundamental right of access to information.
The plaintiff argued that the requested information is freely accessible since it had not been classified as restricted, nor can it be, since the information is not protected under the exemptions provided for in Article 14 of Law No. 6 of 2002. Likewise, he pointed out that since the information required includes data about state concessions to third parties,” its transparency is fundamental for the exercise of citizen oversight in the actions of public entities.”
For its part, the General Directorate of the Authority of Transit and Land Transportation submitted an official report, justifying the partial, belated and confusing delivery of the requested information due to the large volume of data that must be compiled to fulfill the request. The defendant claimed it was undertaking the necessary measures to obtain and compile all the information requested.
The Supreme Court began its analysis by mentioning Article 43 of the Constitution, which recognizes that “Every person has the right to request information of public access or of collective interest that is contained in databases or records held by public servants or private persons who provide public services, as long as such access has not been limited by written provision or by mandate of the Law, as well as to demand its fair treatment and rectification.”
Subsequently, the Court noted that the basis of the right of access to information is “[the] right of every person to be informed about governmental matters that are public. The latter, in the opinion of the Hall, has its limit in the fundamental rights of the human being, particularly the right to privacy, which, as a matter of principle, should not yield to a general interest, without an adequate weighing in case of conflict between fundamental rights (to privacy and inviolability of correspondence) and other constitutional goods.”
According to the Court’s interpretation of Law No. 6 of 2002 —which regulates the right of access to public information— “all state institutions are obliged to provide to any person who requests it […] the information of public access under their power or knowledge” excluding that which has been classified as confidential information. This, the Court noted, was not the case, since the defendant, which in turn represents the Public Administration, has not stated that the information requested by the plaintiff was classified as confidential or of restricted access, “so it is understood that the requested information is public.”
Despite recognizing the effort of the authority in compiling the information, the Court considered that in this case the right of access to information of the plaintiff was breached since the requested authority did not offer a satisfactory response i.e. the information was incomplete.
The Court granted the habeas data action to Congressman Gabriel Silva and ordered the General Directorate of the Authority of Transit and Land Transportation to deliver all documents within a non-extendable period of five days after the notification of the decision.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This decision expands freedom of expression by protecting the right of access to information in cases where the state has issued incomplete or confusing responses. In doing so, the Court vigorously fosters accountability and transparency while reaffirming that denying information requests is exceptional, which is consistent with international human rights standards.
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