When Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, he told his press secretary, Bill Moyers, that he had just signed into law the most dangerous piece of legislation ever.
And for politicians and regulators who never like having people looking over their shoulders, freedom of information laws are indeed very dangerous.
As more countries threw off the weight of dictatorships — left and right — the citizens wanted better oversight of their government. In 1990 there were only a handful of countries with FOI laws. By 2004 there were nearly 100. (The National Democratic Institute did a survey of FOI laws in 2004.)
A whole industry with a lot of good guys and gals has sprung up to help journalists and civic society groups understand their FOI laws and how to use them. The latest comes from the International Center For Journalists: Key Tips for Understanding Freedom of Information Laws in Your Country
There is even an International Right To Know Day designed to promote FOI legislation.
American journalists have a long history with fighting bureaucrats to get the information we need. We have worked hard during the past nearly 50 years to improve and expand FOI laws from federal to state to local levels. There is a lot we can do to help other countries just starting out on this same road. And there is a lot we can learn from the experiences of our fellow scribes around the world. Maybe it is time to step up our game and start reaching out more.