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World passing U.S. by in strength of FOI laws

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Sunshine Week commentary

World passing U.S. by in strength of FOI laws

  • Kevin Siers/Charlotte Observer

Sunshine Week has helped foster government transparency in the United States during the past 10 years, but while we have focused inward at state and federal transparency the world has passed us by.

Open government efforts in the U.S. have helped create a federal ombudsman program and had led to some helpful amendments to FOIA. No doubt Sunshine Week has helped with the improvements. Public exposure was sorely needed since the years of increased post-9/11 secrecy. It is imperative that the public understand the importance of open government, and Sunshine Week has played a critical role. The week makes for a great “news peg” – a reason for journalists to write about transparency.

But setbacks in the past 10 years include more exemptions, fees, delays and sophisticated spin tactics by government officials to thwart access. Meanwhile, amazing things have been happening all around us in the world, and in many ways other countries have outpaced the United States.

Since 2005, the world has seen 45 countries adopt FOIA laws, for a total of 103 nations. The most recent adoptee was Mozambique in December.

Nations with FOIA laws now include Russia, China, Uganda, Tunisia, Afghanistan and Rwanda. Many of their laws are much stronger than U.S. FOIA.

For example, in China government officials are required to waive fees for the indigent and help the disabled and illiterate with requests. In Liberia the right to access public records is in its constitution, not so in the United States. South Korea applies its FOIA to all three branches of government, not just the executive branch as it is here. Armenia and Romania agencies are required to respond to a FOIA request within five days, not the 20 working days given to U.S. agencies.

Many other nations have put teeth in their laws. Mexico provides an independent agency to adjudicate request disputes. In India, agencies that don’t follow the law can be fined. Ethiopia provides a public records ombudsman who can force agencies to cough up records – the U.S. Office of Government Information Services ombudsman does not have that enforcement power.

In many countries the law requires the education of the public in their right to know. The state of Sinaloa in Mexico dictates FOI be taught in the schools. Russia, Norway and other countries require agencies to post online lists of their records and databases. A Colombian law enacted in January requires agencies to provide public records in different languages.

Indeed, world ratings of FOIA laws show that the U.S. is falling behind. Access Info Europe and the Centre for Law and Democracy rate the strength of FOIA laws and place the U.S. at No. 44 in the world, behind such countries as Uganda, Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Mexico’s law ranks seventh.

Granted, just because there is a law doesn’t mean government officials will follow it. Many countries have adopted FOIA laws simply to encourage foreign investment and play ball internationally, with little regard for their citizens or press. And there are disagreements over the ability to accurately rate the strength of FOIA laws.

Public records audits show that access can be difficult in the trenches, regardless of what the law says. On average, for example, police departments in the United States will illegally deny access to simple crime logs about three-quarters of the time. I doubt it’s much better in Russia or China.

But laws do matter, and we can learn a lot from other countries. We should look around the world, identify the best practices internationally, and craft stronger state and federal public record laws.
That global perspective is essential if we want to better serve citizens and democracy in the United States for the next 10 years, and beyond.

David Cuillier, Ph.D., is director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism and Freedom of Information chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is co-author with Charles N. Davis of “The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records,” and “Transparency 2.0: Digital Data and Privacy in a Wired World.”

David Cuillier is an associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Journalism, which he formerly directed, is a former president of the national Society of Professional Journalists, and serves as president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

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