Sunshine: Today and every day

by Erin Siegal McIntyre, JAWS Board Member

Happy Sunshine Week! This year, the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) joins a long list of esteemed participants in the name of transparency and open government.

From March 16–22, organizations across the country are participating in events designed to call attention to Freedom of Information (FOI) and FOIA requests.

Now more than ever, it’s important that journalists stand strong against the not-so-delightful assortment of dirty tricks used to thwart the healthy flow of information from the government’s closets to the public’s hearts and minds.

Since President Obama took office, a number of worrying trends have emerged on the FOIA front. Although one of the president’s first moves was a January 2009 memo on transparency, he hasn’t followed through. Far from it—in fact, Obama has been ranked worse than Bush when it comes to secrecy (not to mention cracking down on whistleblowers, as the New York Times’ public editor has pointed out).

In a 2012 feature story that attracted wide attention, Bloomberg reporters Jim Snyder and Danielle Ivory proved that 19 out of 20 government agencies failed to follow legal FOIA requirements under Obama.

And when you fast-forward to today, 2014, two years later, the data remains dismal. A new report by government watchdog group, the Center for Effective Governance, shows only half of the government agencies handling FOIA requests are actually doing their job.

Some citizens have had to take their FOIA battles all the way to the Supreme Court to win release.

Despite optimistic rhetoric, Obama has, as a recent Roll Call headline touted, indeed “turned FOIA on its head” and created greater secrecy, at the expense of American taxpayers.

Still, talk around reform abounds. A proposed plan to standardize how various agencies handle requests is underway—sort of—and the House recently passed a bipartisan reform bill, H.R. 1211, the Freedom of Information Act Implementation Act. And as always, the politician-champion of FOIA, Vermont’s Senator Patrick Leahy, has published his latest pro-FOIA advocacy statement in advance of Sunshine Week 2014.

A number of news organizations and nonprofits have also been investing in the creation of FOIA-request tracking systems. MuckRock’s been around since 2010, and the Center for Investigative Reporting helped create a platform conceptualized by former Knight fellow Djordje Padejski called FOIAMachine, currently in beta mode. Finally, the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press has also launched a beta FOIA tracker, called iFOIA.

So what can the women of JAWS do to celebrate and fight back? How about filing a few new FOIA’s of your own? The Sunshine Week website has an extensive list of wonderful resources, available here. And to kickstart your creativity, they even have an “Idea Bank” designed to help conceptualize requests. And if you’re in the mood to take action, there’s a handy list of events unfolding across the country.

If you need a template for a new FOIA, the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press has a trusty letter generator online here. If your requests stall, or if you get improperly stonewalled by government agencies, RCFP can also refer you to a pro-bono First Amendment lawyer willing to discuss options related to your case. Or, as I discussed in one of my “FOIA Watchdog” columns for Columbia Journalism Review, you can always just sue them yourself.

Happy FOIA’ing!