For all the freedom of information critics out there, let me say one thing:
It could be a lot worse.
During my internship at Quill, I talked with journalists who have worked in oppressive and authoritarian areas around the world. Unlike their peers in the United States, I learned that
reforming open access legislation is often the least of their concerns.
Simply having an access law would practically be a coup d’état.
In many countries, government information is secretive, and citizens have no means to access it. Freedom of information is rarer than the almost nonexistent liberties of free press and free speech. Censorship is the norm.
For instance, this year Microsoft Network in China created software allowing people to set up personal, free Web logs. Now, millions of people are able to publish their journals and thoughts on the Web. However, according to a Reuters article, the program censors words such as “freedom,” “democracy” and “human rights” before they ever hit cyberspace – greatly prohibiting the free flow of information.
In the provinces of the Philippines, censorship takes on the form of intimidation. Carlos Conde, a Philippine journalist, explained that because crime leaders often are linked to politicians, writing articles critical of these powers can be deadly. Simply for doing their job, six journalists died during the first eight months of 2005, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
Thomas Crampton, a foreign correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, has worked in countries all around the world. He said in areas where citizens are too poor to buy newspapers and read entire articles, government officials tell publications what to write in headlines. This way, people will see what the government wants them to see.
Compared to these countries, the United States is lucky.
Here, we have access to a seemingly endless supply of information thanks to the World Wide Web and the ever-growing blogger-nation. Most censorship comes in the form of bleeping curse words from music videos and crude daytime talk shows. Instead of harming reporters, U.S. officials often use the media to their advantage, staging events for flattering publicity.
And when it comes to accessing government information, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act of 1966 has become one of the most comprehensive open access laws in the world.
But it is far from perfect.
I tested the effectiveness of FOI at the state level by trying to access identical, statistical data from prisons in five states: Texas, California, North Dakota, Indiana and Massachusetts. During my search, I was met with all the standard setbacks that plague the FOI system such as delays, high search fees and miscommunications.
But the most prevalent problem I encountered was state government agencies often not understanding open access procedures.
Take California and North Dakota for example, just two of the six states in the country that have the “right to know” engraved in their constitutions, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. While their laws are similar, how they treated my FOI requests could not have been more different.
Working with the prisons division of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, I didn’t even need to send an official FOI request. I simply sent an e-mail to the director regarding the information I was looking for. The next day his assistant had compiled the data and sent it out. It only took two days.
Then there was the California State Prison, Solano. After making the initial phone call, I was redirected to three different individuals. Numerous people asked me what organization I was with and what the information was for. It took two days just to determine where to send my FOI request.
Once I did, I never heard back.
Although California law specifies an agency must respond within 10 business days, I waited 17 business days before calling the department. I asked to have someone from the prison contact me with the status of my request.
As of press time, no one did. And I never received my requested data.
I came across similar setbacks from the Indiana State Prison. First, I contacted the public access counselor whose job is to “provide advice and assistance concerning the Indiana’s public access laws…,” according to the Indiana state government Web site. Later, I received an e-mail from the counselor that stated, “Our office is not a resource for how to find particular records, and most often, we have no idea what agency may maintain a given record.”
So I called the Indiana Department of Correction and talked with the public relations director. It took six more days before finally reaching the correct person to handle my request.
These delays are entirely unnecessary and unjustifiable. A government employee should always know who to contact with a FOI request. There ought to be ongoing training programs to keep workers updated and knowledgeable of changes in state public access laws.
If there are not enough resources to train every employee, agencies should create a specific job position to handle all open records requests, similar to Texas’ open records coordinator. As an expert in state FOI laws, government employees could direct requesters to this coordinator — eliminating the majority of frustration from redirected phone calls.
But right now, the system isn’t perfect. Sometimes it worked without any trouble. Other times I became so aggravated I wanted to quit trying.
So for all you FOI critics, you’re right. Open access laws have their flaws. But like anything, before you build there must first be a strong foundation. Reforming FOI will have zero impact unless there is a basic understanding within state agencies of how to respond to requests according to the law.
It will take training. It will take practice. It might take years before we start to see progress.
Then again, it could be worse.
Katie O’Keefe, one of this year’s two Pulliam-Kilgore interns, spent 10 weeks researching FOI issues for stories that appear in this issue of Quill.