For the record: Journalism groups challenge government press restrictions

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

The 49th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act arrived this summer with dozens of newspaper groups challenging policies and orders keeping government affairs out of the sunshine and shielded from public review.

In mid-August, 53 journalism groups urged President Barack Obama to end federal press office restrictions that prevent reporters from talking to government employees. Ethics organizations, press clubs and newspaper groups, including the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, of which WiG is a member, made the unified plea.

Journalism groups also are challenging lengthy delays in responding to requests under the Freedom of Information Act, reports of missing documents and data and censorship of material.

“The public has a right to be alarmed by these constraints — essentially a form of censorship — that have surged at all levels of government in the past few decades,” the groups wrote to the president. “Surveys of journalists and public information officers demonstrate that the restraints have become pervasive across the country; that some PIOs admit to blocking certain reporters when they don’t like what is written; and that most Washington reporters say the public is not getting the information it needs because of constraints.”

Obama, on his first day in office in 2009, vowed to make his administration “the most open and transparent in history.”

But, in addition to the federal attacks on whistleblowers, many journalists and press groups have complained about secrecy.

The Freedom of Information Act, the nation’s widely respected open records law, provides the tools for people to compel the government to turn over federal records at zero or minimal cost. Legal reasons for withholding information are to protect national security, personal privacy and business secrets.

The Associated Press, in an analysis of federal data earlier this year, reported that the Obama administration has set a record for censoring government files or denying access to materials under FOIA. At the end of 2014, the backlog of unanswered FOIA requests had grown by 55 percent to 200,000. The government responded to 647,142 FOIA requests and either censored or denied access in 39 percent of those cases. In 215,584 cases, the government said it couldn’t find records.

What can watchdog journalists learn from FOIA requests? The AP obtained records that revealed efforts to restrict airspace during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, last August. In another investigation, the AP learned that the FBI was pressuring police departments to keep secret the development of a new surveillance device called Stingray. And the AP’s first FOIA request for email correspondence from Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state was filed more than five years ago.

And what is the danger of suppressing information? The journalism coalition lobbying for change cited the recent review that found a culture of mishandling dangerous pathogens at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a staff fearful of revealing incidents. Last year, the FDA revealed that it had held smallpox in uninventoried storage for decades, but employees aware of this were forbidden to talk with reporters.

The journalism groups, in the letter to the president, said, “You can act now, before the end of your term, to shift the federal government away from secrecy toward transparency and accountability. When you first entered office you pledged to become the most transparent president in history. It is not too late to fulfill that promise.”

Just weeks before the coalition made its request of the White House, Wisconsin news operations were coalescing against a controversial push by Republicans to gut the state’s open records law. Language snuck into the proposed 2015-17 state budget would have blocked the public from reviewing nearly all records created by state and local lawmakers — even drafts of bills and material deemed part of the “deliberative process” of crafting legislation.

Did you know?

Each year, usually the second week of March, newspapers and other media organizations across the United States observe Sunshine Week, a celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community. The next Sunshine Week observance is March 13-19, 2016.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.