Brazil's Supreme Court held on July 8 that the mayor of the municipality of São Paulo could order the salary of all municipal civil servants to be put online. The Superior Court of São Paulo had previously suspended the mayor's decision to do this, on grounds of personal security.
On 16 June 2009, the Mayor of São Paulo, Gilberto Kassab, decided that the new website, Keeping an Eye on Public Costs (De Olho nas Contas) – http://deolhonascontas.prefeitura.sp.gov.br – should include a nominal list of all civil servants attached to the municipality – including 147,000 employees of the central administration and another 15,000 employed indirectly – with their posts, salaries and place of work.
Two associations of civil servants (representing professors, engineers and architects) filed lawsuits against this decision. They were granted an urgent provisional decision by the Superior Court of São Paulo, and the information was taken off-line. The Municipality appealed to the Supreme Court, which canceled the provisional decision and held that the information could be disseminated.
The two associations argued that the disclosures would, among other things, breach their constitutional rights to privacy and security of person. The Municipality argued that to refuse to disclose the data would be a violation of the constitutional right to information and principles of publicity of all administrative acts.
The São Paulo Superior Court held that the information could put people at risk, and also accepted some procedural arguments. The Supreme Court judge who ruled on the case, Justice Gilmar Mendes, referred to the fact that the Internet has transformed the citizen-State relationship, particularly in relation to social control over public expenditure.
The judge recognized that in some cases, openness could legitimately be limited. However, in this case, the public interest in having the information was stronger than the rights of civil servants, and "public order" would be violated by enforcing a judicial decision that undermined the Municipality's policy of transparency, in favor of individual rights.
The press freedom organization Article 19 has released a note welcoming the decision of the Brazilian Supreme Court and calling on the Brazilian judiciary to apply such standards in all right to information cases.
Genuine acceptance of the right to information will sometimes require balancing with other rights, reason Article 19, and the forward-looking stance of the Supreme Court in undertaking this balancing, rather than simply falling back on accepted notions of privacy and security, which are more established in the jurisprudence, is very welcome.
The international organization has also praised what it called the progressive position of the mayor of São Paulo and asked other public bodies also to adopt strong measures on openness of information.
"This is particularly pertinent and important in light of the new bill on the right to information presented by President Lula to Congress in May 2009," they argue.
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