As I write this, we are not yet a week removed from images of hijacked jetliners, collapsed buildings, horrendous death tolls and national shock. By the time you read this, events may have progressed to the point that these words may be self-evident, redundant or obsolete. Nonetheless, as summer careens toward autumn and the deadline for this column races toward me, some general thoughts must be expressed on the subject of freedom of information as
it relates to our new national crisis. I am never as proud of my profession as I am when we are able to serve American citizens in a crisis. When Americans need to know, they naturally turn to us as journalists for information. In these times, I am proud of the trust my fellow citizens place in our hands. I also take pride that, in times of crisis, Americans have access to information. On that simultaneously bright and grim day in September, we saw for ourselves the events as they unfolded. We saw and heard the president (something we take for granted; imagine the effect of a president who suddenly goes missing for a prolonged period). Bit by bit, we began learning the deadly facts surrounding the events we witnessed. Already, voices are sounding advisories and alarms about how the demands for increased national and civic security will impact our personal liberties. We already are experiencing more limits on our freedom of movement around the country. Our relatively free and easy access to government facilities and other places considered vulnerable to violent acts also may become less convenient. We may see more obvious security measures, more weapons, more shows of potentially deadly force in public places as deterrents to violence. Some of our citizens, based on their descent – or their dissent – may face more scrutiny by legal authorities. Americans will cope with many of these changes and may well accept them, whether willingly or grudgingly. What we cannot afford is a government unwilling to share honest, factual information with its citizens. Freedom of information must be maintained. Citizens must be confident that accurate information is available from their government, either directly or through the media. This includes detailed information on the events of Sept. 11 (and in the days or months leading up to that date,) information on the dead and injured, information on policy discussions and, eventually, information on American counter-terrorism activities at home and abroad, including actions by our armed forces. Americans must be informed of what their leaders, their representatives, their military and their policy-makers do in their name, even if legitimate security precautions require that some of that information is available only after the fact. We know that each American will view the events and the revelations of the coming months through individual lenses colored by beliefs and experiences. But whether we eventually look at this period with pride, shame, sadness, grief or other emotions, we all must be confident in the accountability of our government. Information is the key.
Ian Marquand is special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. He is chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. Contact him at email@example.com.