The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) requested on Thursday, through a mandamus petition against the Department of Health, the itemized distribution list of COVID-19 vaccines received by the government of Puerto Rico and the Vaccination Registry excluding personal information data, but with demographic information, municipality of residence, center and date of vaccination, and justification for the administration of the vaccine.
A few hours after the petition was submitted, the San Juan Superior Court gave the government five days, after being summoned, to respond to the legal claim.
The COVID-19 vaccines distribution list, requested through multiple channels since December 15, 2020, has not been delivered to CPI journalists Omaya Sosa Pascual and Jeniffer Wiscovitch, despite being vital information to learn how the COVID-19 crisis is being handled in Puerto Rico and the criteria being used to make decisions and establish priorities.
“Department of Health officials are obliged to provide all the public documents requested, not only by a media outlet, but also by any citizen. It’s evident that there is a great anxiety among our population to get access to the vaccine, because it can mean the difference between life and death. This public health issue deserves the greatest transparency, and the government has been beating around the bush about our request for a month and a half. That’s why we are going to court today,” said Carla Minet, executive director of the CPI.
“It’s frustrating that the Department of Health is unable or unwilling to explain the way it has been distributing the COVID-19 vaccines. Even more so when the confidence of the people has been undermined so many times. Vaccines must go to the most vulnerable and it’s our duty as journalists to oversee this process. What do they have to hide?” said Sosa Pascual.
The legal recourse highlights that a resolution on Pandemic and Human Rights in the Americas by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) suggests that governments “must give priority to requests for access to information related to the public health emergency” and that in the current circumstances “the state’s obligation to provide access to public information is expanded to require the greatest possible scrutiny of state actions in the name of the emergency.”
“In the specific context of the public health emergency generated by COVID-19, the IACHR has declared that the circumstances require the greatest possible openness to public information held by the government,” Luis José Torres Asensio and Steven Lausell Recurt, from the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico Law School’s Legal Aid Clinic, the CPI’s legal representatives, stated in the complaint.
“Access to public information continues to be a great challenge for citizens and the press and the CPI will exhaust all available remedies to ensure that public officials stop ignoring this fundamental right in a country that aspires to be democratic,” the director of the organization stated.