FOI in the world

A few interesting things happened earlier this year in the realm of freedom of information and it is a pity that groups that should be concerned are saying nothing or are not involved.

Back in April the Carter Center, the Organization of American States, the Andean Juridical Committee, and the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas held a regional conference on right of access laws in Lima, Peru. (Remember that “right of access” is internationalese for “freedom of information.”

And in June UNESCO issued a report on the status of right to information laws in Latin America.

So, why are these items important?

Freedom of information or right to access laws are a vital part of keeping governments honest.

We all know the story as related by Bill Moyers when Lyndon Johnson signed into law the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

“Bill,” Johnson said, “I may have just enacted the most dangerous piece of legislation ever.”

For a person who liked to keep secrets — although I am sure he was surpassed by Richard Nixon and George W. Bush — anything that requires the government to provide information had to be dangerous.

Even with flaws in the FOI laws — national and local — this type of legislation has done a great service to transparency and government accountability.

And now the rest of the world is catching up.

I remember back in 2005 when the Dominican Republic celebrated the first anniversary of its FOI law.

Journalists complained. There were too many loopholes.Government offices were not geared up to comply. Some agencies denied such a law existed. The law was too weak.

Yet, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, who was invited to participate in the anniversary celebrations, said all that may be true but it was up to the journalists and civic groups to make the law work and make it better.

He pointed out the initial weakness in the U.S. and local laws. He then described how U.S. reporters and groups pushed and pushed to make the law better. He told the Dominican journalists that it takes time.

But the battle was important.

Dominican journalists later told me they were heartened by the SPJ presence and support in the FOI battles.

Four years later the SPJ was noticible in its absence — to me anyway — from the Carter Center conference and from comments on the June report.

No one else in this hemisphere has more experience with FOI laws than American journalists. And no other group has been as active in defending and promoting the U.S. FOI laws than the SPJ. It is a pity it has been quiet on the regional and international front.

BTW, there is a nice collection of FOI/RTA laws done up by Dr. Jeremy Lewis for Huntingdon College.

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Filed under Freedom of access, Freedom of Information

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