Puerto Rico

Report to the Midyear Meeting 2023
April, 25-27

During this period, problems with access to public information continued. A study published in October revealed that implementing the Law of Transparency and Expedited Procedure for Access to Public Information has been deficient and inconsistent.

Over three years after it was approved, dozens of government agencies and municipalities continue to fail to comply with the most basic requirements of the Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information. The statute establishes how and who can request public information and the maximum period it must be delivered. The report aimed to evaluate the compliance of more than 120 agencies from the Executive Branch and 78 municipalities.

Among the main findings, the report establishes that 12% of central government agencies have not appointed the minimum of three "information officers" required to process the requests that citizens and the press may submit.

In addition to designating them, agencies are required to post these officers' names and contact information on their websites. However, although 98% of the information officers were appointed in the Executive Branch, only 39% of the agencies have contact information (name, email, and telephone number) on their web pages about the officials.

The media and journalists continue to go to court to obtain information from government agencies, public corporations, and municipalities. However, the courts allow imposing gag orders in cases of high public interest to prevail. They also demand the disclosure of journalistic sources.

Recently, a judge of the Federal District Court for the District of Puerto Rico declared invalid an article on "false news" contained in the Law of the Department of Public Safety. In turn, the United States Supreme Court is considering a case on access to public information filed by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) against the Financial Oversight and Management Board.

Dozens of judicial appeals have been filed for access to public information by citizens and the press. For example, the Citizen Commission for the Audit of Public Credit filed a lawsuit in the San Juan Court against the Convention Center District Authority (ADCCPR) for refusing to provide information on the corporation's bond issues, financial statements, and minutes of its meeting of directors, among other documents. On March 1, the court resolved in favor of the petitioners and ordered the information delivery.

In February, the CPI demanded information from the Office for Socioeconomic and Community Development (ODSEC) on the ownership of community centers and recreational and sports facilities in unique communities. On March 15, the court delivered the information.

On April 3, the United States Federal Court for the District of Puerto Rico declared unconstitutional a part of the Department of Public Safety Law that criminalizes the disclosure of information that constitutes a "false alarm" about public emergencies. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed the lawsuit in May 2020 on behalf of broadcaster and writer Sandra Rodríguez Cotto and journalist Rafelli González Cotto. They feared the laws would be used to punish them for their reporting on public emergencies that reflect negatively on the work of the government. In addition, the law threatened to freeze information on the Covid-19 crisis and other emergencies because journalists risked prosecution by the government.

The ACLU and its Puerto Rico Chapter argued that the law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments because the imprecise terminology and broad scope gave people little guidance on what speech might constitute a crime and said the government had too much discretion to decide.

For their part, gag orders have become the order of the day in criminal cases of high public interest. For example, the cases of former governor Wanda Vázquez Garced and former mayor Ángel Pérez Otero of the Municipality of Guaynabo have been saddled with gag orders that prevent the defendants from expressing themselves and prevent the press from reporting on the events that led to such accusations.

The privilege of the press not to reveal sources has not yet been recognized. However, the benefit has been questioned after two rulings that denied a protective order requested by the former director of Televicentro News, Alex Delgado, and WAPA TV to maintain a source's anonymity.