Interview with the chief editor of the global portal Freedominfo.org on the occasion of the US FOIA 50th anniversary
Toby, you’ve been a journalist for… how many years? What are the media that you worked for and the topics you have covered?
I started as a journalist in high school, so let’s say 50 years as a print journalist. Most of my career I was covering the US government in Washington, including the White House, Congress and many regulatory agencies, covering many topics. My nerdy special interests included how rules are created and access to information.
In what instances have you had to use the FOIA in your journalistic work? What is your favorite request?
Filing FOIA requests isn't often the most productive way to get stories. Many of my efforts were designed to open a path, such as a request for the appointment logs of a top official. My favorite request turned up records of government surveillance of Vietnam War protests at my college.
According to statistics, journalists are not the biggest group of users of the FOIA in the US. Why do you think that’s the case?
The FOIA is for everyone. So it’s not a concern to me that journalists are a comparatively low percentage of users. However, more reporters are filing requests and should. Imagining large stories and developing requests is a challenge, and it takes time to get results. But a FOIA request can pay off like a long-term investment. Besides, exercising our rights strengthens the system.
4. Who are the key (social, political, etc) players, according to you, on the way to an open and transparent government?
Around the world, it is mostly civil society organizations like AIP who have pushed for transparency. Media support is often there, but not always. Reformers within governments play an unsung role.
You have followed closely the campaign on the latest amendments to the FOIA. What are the factors that influenced the most these changes in the FOIA?
Transparency is frequently embraced by politicians with otherwise very different viewpoints. That’s part of what happened in the US. Republicans and Democrats agreed on a modest reform agenda. Plus, a very united coalition of advocates, willing to compromise, pushed hard for the bill.
What kind of changes do you expect as a result of the amendments?
More proactive disclosures online may be one very positive long-term result. Also, the reforms strengthen the hand of the FOIA reformers by establishing advisory bodies and beefing up the importance of the ombudsman. Having an independent voice make access decisions has proven value worldwide.
What is IFTI Watch? Why did you start it?
IFTI Watch began about 2002 and was focused on following the often opaque international financial institutions, like the World Bank. We documented problems with openness and chronicle reform efforts at the institutions. These bodies have a major impact on our lives and yet are more secretive than most national governments. Sometimes, this feels like a tiny journalistic niche, but I also feel we get results.
What are the challenges of being the chief (and only) editor of the global portal Freedominfo.org?
Finding news around the world isn’t easy, but I am constantly amazed how much transparency news you can find on the Internet. I run many searches in a variety of languages and use Google Translate. Exchanges among activists through the FOI Advocate Network (which was founded in Bulgaria) are a useful source of information. And gradually, I have developed sources around the world.
Another topic that you follow closely is the OGP. Who has benefited most from the initiative?
The OGP is fascinating for a number of reasons beginning with its theory of change that countries will voluntarily make commitments to open government and implement them. Also, it’s a unique international organization, controlled equally by member governments and civil society organizations. Much enthusiasm, many early successes -- but now the five-year-old organization faces the challenge to encourage government to tackle bigger, more transformative issues. Hopefully, this will also mean an increased focus on implementing access to information as a human right.
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