Recent news reports that the Obama administration has compiled a dismal record of releasing government documents requested under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act — despite promises to be the most transparent administration in history — have not surprised press advocates who say accessing government information is increasingly fraught with roadblocks, censorship, denials and delays.
The administration censored or denied more Freedom of Information Act requests in fiscal year 2013 than it granted in full, citing national security as a reason to withhold information a record-breaking 8,496 times, a 57 percent increase over the year before, according to an Associated Press analysis.
“There’s no question. Governments have used national security as an explanation for keeping records from the public,” Ken Paulson, president and chief executive officer of the First Amendment Center and former editor of USA Today, said in a telephone interview. “We could understand if that information were a diagram to a nuclear facility. But there’s a long tradition of government using any convenient explanation.”
OPEN-GOVERNMENT advocates say “personnel issues” and “concern for personal privacy” are other common, and convenient, explanations for denying access to public records. As we conclude this year’s Sunshine Week — a national initiative to promote awareness about the importance of open government and freedom of information — it’s vital to understand that government too often fails to acknowledge that public records belong to the public.
There are myriad reasons for government officials’ reluctance to release documents: lack of time and resources, an unwillingness to accept accountability for government actions, ignorance of laws guaranteeing access to information, outright secrecy and what Society of Professional Journalists’ National President David Cuillier calls “paternalistic protectionism.”
“They feel like they are in charge and the public has no right to look at their work,” said Cuillier, who also is director of the University of Arizona’s Department of Journalism. “They forget: They’re dealing with the people’s records, not the government’s records.”
Historically, states have been more responsive to information requests than the federal government, partly because the federal bureaucracy is bigger and slower to change. But Cuillier argues that secrecy is pervasive at all levels, whether it’s the U.S. Department of Justice or the local town council.
“We have trickle-down secrecy,” Cuillier said in a telephone interview, “and it’s not just secrecy. It’s managing the message. It’s not allowing government employees to talk to reporters.”
A new survey of 445 state and local reporters conducted by Carolyn Carlson, a communication professor at Kennesaw State University, found that the overwhelming majority said they face increasing restrictions on access to government officials and other controls that limit their ability to cover government issues.
“The problem is pervasive,” Carlson told Associated Press writer Adam Geller.
While Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, says he has seen recent improvement in the rhetoric of elected officials in Kansas — not uncommon during an election year — he says it’s rhetorical rather than substantive.
Still, Anstaett said in a telephone interview that he’s cautiously optimistic: There is serious talk in Kansas about opening up the legislative process by live-streaming legislative committee hearings and debate on the House and Senate floors. Senate Bill 10, which appears headed for passage, would limit what people and the press requesting government documents in Kansas could be charged for photocopying and staff time.
Lack of resources at news organizations of all sizes concerns press advocates who say that whether it’s a back-breaking photocopying budget for a small newspaper or lack of financial resources for a court challenge over a Freedom of Information dispute, lack of resources can — and often does — effectively erode public access to public records.
But perhaps the most troubling of all is what could be called public and political apathy.
The First Amendment Center’s Paulson sees a “very interesting commonality” between liberal groups who want public records so they can monitor government activities and Tea Party affiliates who want to know how their tax dollars are spent.
If this desire for access were a universal political value, “you could make real progress,” he said.
AT THE same time, Paulson said he’s pessimistic about the lack of overall public support for access to government information. The public has a stake in government information accessible to an independent press, he said, but the press hasn’t made that case.
Paulson and SPJ’s Cuillier agree that access to government information is no small matter. The founding fathers, having drafted a Constitution that made central government possible while being simultaneously distrustful of it, insisted on the watchdog function of a free and unfettered press.
“Freedom of the press is the driving force in making this the most vibrant democracy on the planet,” Paulson said. “But that has limited value if you don’t have the information to write about.”