Roberto Saba, a lawyer, has been a pioneer in the movement to build democratic processes in Argentina following the re-establishment of a democratic government. He has engaged citizens in fighting government corruption, achieving rights for minorities, and pushing for access to government information and freedom of the press.
The New Idea
Roberto is at the forefront of the movement to promote democracy and civic engagement in Argentina. As director of the organization Poder Ciudadano (Citizen Power) in the 1990s, he fostered democratic debate and community at the grassroots level. During the first stages of Argentine democracy, Roberto played a pivotal role in engaging citizens who distrusted government and were skeptical of politics. In the late 1990s, he led a major campaign against government corruption that put the issue on the Argentine people’s agenda for the first time. Corruption became a central issue in the national election, and the newly elected president created an anti-corruption office. Roberto has always acted on the belief that democracy must come from citizens who own their rights and proactively push for them. He and others founded the Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (ADC) to use law as a tool for social change and to advocate for civil rights and minority rights. There was no other organization in Argentina using litigation in this way. Today ADC is one of Argentina’s largest citizen organizations (COs), and may be compared to the American Civil Liberties Union. Director of ADC since 2001, Roberto has led the organization to a unique focus on the right to information as a key leverage point for protecting civil rights and fostering democracy. As with his anti-corruption campaign, his goal is to show Argentineans how they are directly affected by lack of government transparency and limitations on press freedom. Through awareness-building and public policy change, Roberto has enabled the public to learn information about the activities of government and political leaders, such as the salaries of public officials and all public tenders for government contracts. On the regional level, Roberto has forged a coalition of organizations working to shine new light on the soft censorship prevalent in young democracies across Latin America.
After a succession of political coups and military dictatorships, Argentina finally re-established democracy in 1983, but since then, it has been unstable. Though the Argentine people welcome democracy, they have little trust in the political system or political parties. After decades of not having a say in their governance, they needed to learn how to participate as citizens in a democratic system. A growing movement of COs, community groups, and schools are promoting democratic values at the grassroots level. Roberto and others in this movement work with the assumption that democracy must be built from the ground up. This movement has informed and engaged citizens through education and public forums to bring citizens together and foster public debate. In founding ADC, Roberto and his colleagues identified a need for complementary strategies in the legal arena to support grassroots efforts to promote civil rights. The Argentine judiciary system processed cases of abuse, but there were no organizations using litigation to fight for the rights of minorities and other disenfranchised people.The 1994 Constitution enshrined the right to freedom of information, giving international treaties precedence over national laws, but the government has not routinely carried out this right. Despite the return of democracy, Argentina, like many Latin American countries, operates under a culture of secrecy. The public’s right to vote is respected, but not the right to understand activities of government and political leaders. Courts have ruled that people requesting information must have “legitimate reasons,” and that the disclosure of information should not harm anyone’s “honor”—both open to broad interpretation.In countries across Latin America, the state is often the biggest advertiser in media via government agencies and government owned companies. Young democratic governments use “soft” censorship, wielding huge media budgets to favor the media that support them and stifle those who write or speak against them. The public has little knowledge of this indirect pressure on the media.
Roberto believes in building democracy by giving citizens access to information about their rights and teaching them to push for those rights, and has acted on this belief from various platforms. He has also been a pioneer in using law as a tool for positive social change. In 1995 Roberto became Executive Director of Poder Ciudadano, promoting democracy and the Argentine chapter of Transparency International. Poder Ciudadano brings communities together to debate public interest issues. During his tenure, Roberto built the organization into a resource center for an extensive network of schools, universities, civic groups, and news organizations with a commitment to civic engagement. He felt it was important to provide citizens with information, so Poder Ciudadano prepared materials including a series of issue books, educational curricula, and media articles. After impacting national elections through an extensive anti-corruption campaign, Roberto left Poder Ciudadano to become Director of ADC. He had co-founded the organization six years earlier, but it was not until 2001 that he began to lead ADC full-time. Until then, ADC had pursued a strategy of using litigation to fight for civil rights on a case-by-case basis. Roberto set out to professionalize the organization, defining a broader agenda and complementing litigation with other strategies to promote human rights. Today ADC also lobbies for policy change and raises public awareness through broad communications. Roberto has spread greater awareness of rights to protection from the law and access to information. Through litigation and communications, ADC has built widespread respect for the rights of minorities, particularly sexual minorities and people with disabilities. One of ADCs current initiatives works directly with minorities to teach them about their rights and how to achieve them. Through workshops, courses, and awareness-building, ADC teaches the Argentine people to demand information from the government. Roberto employs a variety of innovative communications strategies, including events and competitions in schools, among businesses, and among the press. He runs large awareness-building campaigns; last year alone, ADC had 700 media hits. ADC trains journalists to do investigative journalism and to ask for and interpret government information. The organization also engages journalists in this type of reporting by sponsoring competitions, such as documenting human rights abuses. Roberto sees great possibility in new media and technology to reach more people.ADC has had significant impact in enabling citizens to access information. Votes of Supreme Court judges and congressmen (and analysis of those votes) are matters of public record for the first time. Citizens can access information about the salaries of public servants, amounts of government contracts, and public health care. For example, in 2001 when transplant patients in public hospitals in Buenos Aires suddenly stopped receiving their medications, Roberto and ADC helped families use the City of Buenos Aires Freedom of Information Act (which Roberto had drafted and helped pass) to find out why government funding had been stopped, and they were able to take appropriate legal action to reclaim this vital supply of medicine. ADC activities have also allowed many families to find out what happened to “disappeared” family members during the military dictatorship. An important thread of Roberto’s work is promoting freedom of expression by exposing the government’s soft censorship of the press. ADC researches and documents incidents of censorship. Roberto has formed a series of alliances with COs across the region and with international groups such as the Open Society Institute to educate the public about the prevalence of soft censorship.
As a teenager, Roberto studied at the National High School of Buenos Aires, a prestigious institution with a focus on teaching democracy, and after, he pursued a law degree. Roberto was familiar with the field because his parents were lawyers, and from the start he knew he did not want to be a typical lawyer.In part, through the influence of a mentor, Carlos Nino—a lawyer and government advisor on democratic processes—Roberto grew to strongly believe in the power of law as a tool for social change. He formed a group of like-minded peers and lawyers and together they launched a magazine, No Hay Derechos; connecting legal topics with political and social issues. In 1992 Roberto used a fellowship from the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio to write an issues book on government corruption for Poder Ciudadano. He believed citizens needed more information to effectively participate in civic life and hold government accountable. A few years later, Roberto received a Master’s degree in Law from Yale University.When Roberto returned to Argentina in 1995, he was recruited as executive director by Poder Ciudadano. He agreed to take the position, eager to transform the organization from a loosely structured citizen group to a more professional institution. During the same year, Roberto and a group of colleagues founded the ADC. They intended it to operate much like the American Civil Liberties Union, defending individual rights through litigation, legislation, and community education. In 2001 Roberto became director of ADC, expanding its mandate from the legal sphere to the scope it has today.