Brazil’s FOIA came into force in 2011 to ensure the right of access to information from the federal government and the federative units, but only the salaries of active public servants were available on the Transparency Portal, excluding inactive ones. Fiquem Sabendo has been fighting to open this data in the last 4 years. In 2020 we’ve managed to open civil’s inactive pensions and, in 2021, we’ve made the government open decades of data about military pensions in Brazil, a black box that has never been opened before. More than 70 exclusive stories were published in Brazilian and international media
More than 70 stories were published about military pensions based on our work, including articles and Opeds published in every major news outlet in Brazil. This data has been hidden for decades. This story explains in detail the importance of opening this data and how we did it: https://latamjournalismreview.org/articles/journalism-brazil-freedom-of-information-act-pensions/
The stories published based on the data we revealed show, for example, that the children of Brilhante Ustra, a famous Brazilian torturer, still receive military pensions – https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2021-07-06/governo-paga-12-milhao-de-reais-por-mes-a-herdeiras-de-militares-acusados-de-crimes-na-ditadura.html
Another story revealed that many pensioners have their own millionaire companies but still receive money from the government – https://www.metropoles.com/brasil/registros-mostram-400-filhas-pensionistas-de-militares-como-socias-de-empresas-milionarias
In another story, we show that more public funds are spent in military pensions that in social benefits for poor people in Brazil – https://piaui.folha.uol.com.br/as-pensoes-e-os-bilhoes-da-familia-militar/
Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil largest newspaper, wrote an Oped based on the data we found saying that the pensioners payment policy shouldn’t exist anymore – https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/opiniao/2021/07/custoso-anacronismo.shtml
We went to court (Tribunal de Contas da Uniao / TCU) with a lawyer to make the government open the data, filed dozens of FOIA requests every month to get updates on how they were working to open the data and, when the data was released, used R and Shinyapps to make hundreds of gigabytes easy to use and find pensionists names – https://fabdev.shinyapps.io/graphs_on_demand/
We’ve organized a pool of journalists from dozens of different Brazilian and international newsrooms to public the stories using the data we found.
What was the hardest part of this project?
There were two main problems: making the government open the data even after the court decision. They have tried many different ways to keep hiding information, like disclosing only pensions related to civil servants and hiding the military, saying that military servants don’t have to disclose their benefits, postponing the disclosed of data every month, etc.
The second problem was to understand the data and make it available to everyone in a way that journalists would immediately start asking questions and writing their stories instead of spending time to understand particularities from the dataset. There were lots of mistakes in the original database, so we had to speak with people from the govermnet many times, schedule meetings and make them fix everything before actually making the data available.
What can others learn from this project?
Collaborative journalism is a key to get important information and make it relevant to society. Sometimes the scoop is not the only (or the most) important thing in a story.