Posted tagged ‘open government’

FOIA reform: A step for journalism and democracy

February 16, 2016

images-11The pen can be mightier than the sword, but only when certain conditions are met. One is that the pen has enough information to go on.

When government is open and the press is free, the governed can be informed enough to make responsible choices. Both parts of that supposition seem to be under constant threat. Currently, threats to the former come largely from fear of terrorism, of foreign governments, of cyberhackers, and various combinations. Threats to the latter come from corporate owners, genericism (everything is focus-grouped and homogenized), and the disappearance of investigative journalism and of independent media itself.

Let’s look just at that “open government” part. The American Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)—which goes way back to the Lyndon Johnson administration—allows for release, full or partial, of U.S. government documents. (There are versions in other countries, too.) It defines what records can and should be disclosed and how and, of course, spells out several exceptions. FOIA doesn’t mean the feds necessarily make it easy or cheap to get information—they can still redact the heck out of it, bury you in paper, and/or send it long after you ask for it—but FOIA is better than no FOIA.

In fact, in many cases, FOIA has been fabulous. Innumerable important news stories have been broken, crimes and coverups exposed, arrests made, fines levied, lives improved. Wrongdoers have been frog-marched out of both public service and private employment based on information discovered or confirmed through FOIA searches.

But the Freedom of Information Act has been eroded, largely due to 9/11 and the response (“fear of terrorism, of foreign governments, of cyberhackers, and various combinations”). Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act (H.R. 653), which amends FOIA toward greater transparency and accountability. The Senate has yet to act.

Now more than 40 organizations have spoken out in favor, mostly, of this FOIA reform. A letter coordinated by (“Americans for less secrecy, more democracy”) has gone to House leaders and the public.

For example, signers approve the bill’s requirement that federal agencies disclose information unless there is some legal bar or “foreseeable harm” in doing so. The bill would narrow the use of FOIA’s Exemption 5, a very necessary change because this exemption has kept expanding to withhold—or cover up—far too much information that should have been released in the public interest, such as U.S. torture policies, targeted-killing programs, and of course National Security Agency surveillance information. The bill also would allow the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) to communicate directly with Congress (this is not allowed?) and to advise on mediations.

The 40+ organizations object to some last-minute changes in the bill from members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. These changes, naturally, would exempt the intelligence community from some of the FOIA amendments and from the OGIS consultation process—exactly the sort of things the new bill is aiming to reform.

The coalition signing this letter includes the American Society of Journalists and Authors (to which I belong), the Society of Professional Journalists, the Media Freedom Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, the American Association of Law Libraries, the Association of Research Libraries, and the National Security Archive. Notice a pattern here?

I have written my legislators and urged them to support the bill without those changes—my representative, of course, and both senators, assuming the bill will make its way to that side of the Hill. If you’re in the States, I hope you’ll do the same. To find your members of Congress, just go to and type in your Zip code, click each name, then go to his or her contact form to write in a few original sentences on why you support H.R. 653. See? Open government at work.

Copyright 2016 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.