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FOIA Failures Block Free Expression

 by Lisa Gulya

Tags: Media, Freedom of Information Act, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press,

FOIA request response letter

Two years after President Bush's executive order calling for federal agencies to improve their processing of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, a new study (pdf) by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government found that the feds have made "little if any progress" on this front.

The report, "An Opportunity Lost," details the government's abysmal record on FOIA requests between 1998 and 2007, enumerating the mounting backlog, sluggish processing, and dwindling amount of information released. The Coalition found a growth in the backlog of FOIA requests, from 13 percent in 1998 to 33 percent in 2007, while 15 of the 25 agencies reported processing “simple” information requests more slowly. Last year, the Coalition found that, once a request was processed,  only 60 percent of requesters received all or most of the information they wanted—an all-time low. 

Being able to critique our government in speech and in print is a unique and laudable right, argued attorney Thomas Tinkham at Minneapolis’ recent Human Rights Law and Policy Conference. That right stems from a simple belief of our founders: if you provide information to the public and allow them to discuss it, the best governance will result. Judging by the way the current administration has handled FOIA requests, beliefs about good governance have changed to rely on secrecy and top-down decision-making to protect the people. 

Human rights offenders fear public scrutiny, Tinkham said, and our government’s reluctance to provide information simply increases public suspicion that the administration’s actions are worthier of condemnation than congratulation. Without an open and transparent government, the right to free expression is meaningless, crippling the work of human rights advocates and investigative journalists.

(Thanks, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.)

Image by redjar, licensed under Creative Commons.