A great week

This was a very special week for the project Friends of Januária and we’re back to tell you about the last achievements we had.

First, we are very glad to announce that the project has a new partner: the human rights NGO Article 19 South America. Internationally known for it’s work in defense of the rights to freedom of expression and access to information, thay are supporting the project and will participate in one of it’s workshops.

The contact with Article 19 started in April, together with other contacts we made with NGOs commited with the right to access to information and the fight against corruption. We talked to several organizations that showed us their interest in the project and there will to support us in some way. In the beggining of May we had a very important meeting with Article 19 to talk more about the project and last week they gave us their response. This was a great step to the sustentability of the project. We are very glad and thankful to our friends of Article 19 and we are sure that together we will make a great job!

During this week we also had an important meeting with our correspondent in Januária, the investigative journalist Fábio Oliva, (now officially) one of the coordinators of the project. Together with him we started having a lot of ideas of practical activities and exercises to do during the workshops. Oliva is a very experienced journalist and activist against corruption. His participation in this project will be essential to it success! Soon we will get together again to discuss more about the topics of the course.

Fábio is also in touch with local partners in Januária, including a school that might cooperate with a classroom with computers where the workshops could occur. We are now in touch with them so we can define a final schedule for the meetings.

As you can see, we have a lot of reasons to celebrate this week! Thank you all who were wishing us luck!!
Soon we will be back with more news!

“Associations of Friends”, a successful model to fight corruption

Today we will introduce you to our greatest partner, the Friends of Januária Association (Asajan) and we talk about the rise of the “Associations of Friends” model, focused on the fight against corruption, in many Brazilian small towns.

This story begins in 1999, when a group of citizens from Ribeirão Bonito, a small town in the São Paulo countryside, with a population of only 12 thousand people, created the NGO Associated Friends of Ribeirão Bonito (Amarribo). “After seeing the deterioration of their town, caused by the lack of public resources, a group of citizens started to search for alternatives to make Ribeirão Bonito recover from its problems”, explains the organization at its site (http://www.amarribo.org.br/).

In that same year, Amarribo started to suspect that the town’s mayor was involved in the embezzlement of public funds. The main symptom was that the mayor’s family was getting richer after he was elected. Then, Amarribo started an investigation, collected proof and made public accusations against him. Along with this process, Amarribo raised awareness about the issue of local governance among the town’s residents – 10% of them (1,200 people) went to streets when the mayor was going to be released from office due to wrongdoings. Finally, the mayor was put in prison in 2002.

This story of success about the residents association which removed a corrupt politician from the town’s administration was something pretty new in Brazil! Soon, Amarribo became an example to be followed by other towns and, little by little, the “Associations of Friends” model, focused on monitoring public administration, spread around the country. Nowadays, Amarribo’s network has organizations in 173 towns in Brazil! One of them is Januária.

Januária is a small town in Northern Minas Gerais. Its residents keep on remembering the time when the town didn’t have so many problems. Actually, Januária had a stronger economy and was one of the biggest and one of the most tradicional producers of “cachaça”, a brazilian drink. Then, things started to deteriorate in Januária.

Fabio Oliva, who is a local journalist (http://blogdofabiooliva.blogspot.com/), will never forget the day when his father had an cerebral hemorrhage. As the local hospital wasn’t able to take care of him, he had to be sent to another hospital, 170 km far from Januária. In the middle of the road, the ambulance ran out of fuel. If it wasn’t enough, it also ran out of oxygen. “Probably, my father would die anyway. But I wish he had died with more dignity inside a hospital, not on a road, without oxygen, under a 40˚C heat”, says Oliva. Angry about the poor conditions of Januária, Oliva met Amarribo’s work and started to imagine how Januária could become a better place if its residents started to monitor the local administration. Soon after, Oliva gathered some friends in Januária and created Asajan. The year was 2004.

One of these friends was a municipal health advisor, Suely Pereira, a former hairdresser. Suely used to make copies of every public document that passed by her and brought four boxes full of documents from the public administration to the group. With these documents in their hands, Asajan’s members had to learn how to investigate. And they learned well. “Since then, we have been fighting corruption and releasing corrupt mayors from office. Asajan was involved in all cases in which mayors were released from office due to wrongdoings”, says Suely.

The work done by Asajan also inspired many other citizen groups to create new “Associations of Friends” in the northern Minas Gerais. A success partnership between citizens who care for their town’s future!

Building the contents for the workshops

One of the most interesting parts of the citizen media project “Friends of Januaria” is preparing its content of the workshops. Among other things, this week we started planing the contents we want to discuss during the workshops. Initially, we have defined six main themes that will guide the course: access to information and freedom of expression as human rights; public administration and public budget; corruption; journalism techniques and tools; how to search information and, finally, how to store and process information.

The topics we listed may seem a little weird at first: why talk about the right of access to information and freedom of expression to people that are starting a course on how to access information and share it? Aren’t the concepts of these rights already clear to the population?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Brazil’s Federal Constitution recognizes the right to access to information and also signed the international standards that guarantees it. However, there are few and sparse pieces of legislation that effectively stipulate that all public institutions must give information to the citizens and the ways and conditions in which it must be given. This results in a culture of secrecy that little by little is being changed. As we said before, nowadays there are a lot of initiatives making public data available to the population – these are the ones we want to publicize in this project and teach people how to use them. But we also believe it is very important to contextualize the situation of access to information in freedom of expression in Brazil, so people can realize when their rights are being violated and fight against that, since we still have a long way to go.

That’s why we are planning to structure the workshops in a way that we can have a part with discussions on some topics of theory and a part with more practical techniques (how to make interviews, how to write in a blog, how to find information, etc.). The idea is also to plan activities for the participants to apply their knowledge and get in touch with the reality of the city by visiting places, interviewing people and researching in public databases.

During the next weeks, we hope to share in a deeper way more about each of these topics, since we are starting our researches and soon will start writing the material.

Just to let you know: this week we got in touch with some possible partners in Januaria to introduce the project and they all seemed very open and interested. Here in São Paulo we are still contacting some organizations in order to find the final financial support we need to buy the tickets to Januaria and we have some important meetings this week, so… wish us luck!!

We are Friends of Januária

We are here to introduce to you the project “Friends of Januária”, in central Brazil, which will provide training to citizen reporters to monitor their public administration and budget and fight corruption.

First of all, it is worth telling you a little bit about the access to information in Brazil and about what has been happening in Januária for the last few years. Today, Brazil sees an open access to information movement in which civil society, collectives, NGO’s and individuals are engaged in. There is a long way to go, since Brazil still doesn’t have an Access to Information Law. Some data is already available online, but one of the biggest challenges faced is that the data is spread across many sites, which are difficult to access. Although many journalists have special skills to access that data, the Brazilian media is highly concentrated in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Brasília, the most important towns in Brazil, and they can’t monitor what happens in small towns far from big urban centers.

Let’s take a look in what happens in Januária, a small town in central Brazil with a population of 65,000. Januária has had a recent history of difficulties with its local government – in the span of eight years, the town has gone through seven different mayors, most of them removed from office because of mismanagement of public funds. Well, the town should be the focus of many reports, shouldn’t it? But that doesn’t happen. The local government receives little or no press coverage at all! If it wasn’t for Fabio Oliva’s work, who is a blogger and activist, few would be investigated by media. Oliva is one of the founders of the Association Friends of Januária (Asajan), which has been raising awareness about the issue of local governance among the town’s residents, through investivative journalism work and public awareness campaigns.

The main objective of “Friends of Januária” is that citizens can become reporters of their own towns, getting access to public data. Access to information is a human right and should be available to all! Once they share that public data, they will raise community awareness about how important it is to fight corruption. So, the project’s aim is to provide a course about access to public information which encourages participants to share the collected data through online reports.

We plan to start the course during second semester of 2011. Until now, our biggest challenge is to overcome the barriers posed by high transport costs – we need to move the course educators from São Paulo to Januária. The problem is that it is very expensive to go to one place to another in Brazil!! During the last weeks we have been searching for additional support to the Rising Voices grant because then it would be easier to pay for these costs and provide a longer course. We are confident that we will succeed!

Soon, we will start one of the most important parts of the work: to prepare the course material and its classes. We believe the material and the classes can be used in many other small towns, so we will do our best!! Our idea is to gather knowledge and experiences from different organizations, collectives and individuals that have worked with access to information, public administration monitoring, and corruption investigation. During this step, we will share everything with you here at the blog!