Tag Archives: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Freedom of Information Day 2017 – An unprecedented challenge

It strikes me that it is more than appropriate that Sunshine Week, March 12-18, 2017, begins on the first day of Daylight Savings Time!  Maybe an extra hour of sunshine will actually help!  One can hope.

I have written so often about open government, transparency, the right to know, the First Amendment and the free press that I mention just one recent blog post that perhaps best expresses my deep concerns about the crisis in which we find ourselves. https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/information-and-media-not-weapons-but-tools/  

As citizens of a threatened democracy we need to think more than ever about our rights, the role of the press, and our need to discern truth in an incredible barrage of data, misinformation, fake facts, propaganda and, happily, thoughtful exposition of ideas, issues and facts.  We can’t give up.  

Nationally, the week is sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.  The SW website offers an excellent introduction to the principles, the issues, a valuable Tookkit for local activists including a calendar of what’s happening around the nation. It’s an essential starting point and inspiration to take action.  All is revealed through multiple channels, including #Sunshineweek@asne.org, and on Facebook.

For many years the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI) has commemorated Sunshine Week by sponsoring a Freedom of Information Day event. The history of FOIA Day (March 16) respects the birthday of James Madison, author of the First Amendment.  And so each year MNCOGI hosts a Freedom of Information Day public event.  This year’s event is set for Thursday, March 16, Noon at the Minneapolis Central Library.

Keynote speaker at FOI recognition is Patrice McDermott, founder and long-time director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a DC-based coalition of organizations that endorse government accountability and access.  Her talk is entitled “Secrecy and Accountability – Looking Forward, Looking Back.”  Member of the National Freedom Act Hall of Fame Dr. McDermott is a national authority on the principles and challenges to the right of the people to access to information by and about the government.  

At the same gathering the Coalition will honor Tony Webster, recipient of this year’s John R Finnegan FOI Award.  Webster  is a self-proclaimed “web engineer, public records researcher, and policy nerd”. (@webster)  MNCOGI chair Gary Hill observes that “Tony Webster is a shining example of the power of a single individual to make government more transparent and hold it more accountable.”   

Sponsored each year by the Coalition, the Finnegan Award honors Minnesota newspaperman John R. Finnegan, installed in 2011 as a member of the Freedom of Information Hall of Fame (http://www.nfoic.org/2011-open-government-hall-fame)

(https://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2012/10/eulogies-john-finnegan-sr)

The FOI Day event is free and open to the public.

Related updates:

A powerful statement of press freedom endorsed by a broad coalition of agencies:  http://ncac.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Press-Freedom-Statement-FINAL.pdf

Recipient of the James Madison Award, sponsored by the American Library Association Washington Office, is Jon Tester (D-MT).  The award will be presented at one of the main events of Sunshine Week, a gathering at the Newseum in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, March 15 – streamed live from the Knight TV Studio in the Newseum.  http://www.newseum.org/live/)

Thoughts on Sunshine Week 2015 – WWJMD?

The sun has shone and the sun has hidden behind many a bureaucratic and political cloud since the launch of Sunshine Week a decade ago. The decade has experienced cosmic change ranging from Wikileaks and Snowden to the emergence of open government groups such as Code for America to the President’s National Action Plan for Open Government to a last minute failure of the 113rd Congress to pass the FOIA Improvement Act.

Constant vigilance inspires Sunshine Week sponsors to join forces to plan for Sunshine Week 2015, March 15-21.

Ten years seems a propitious time to reflect on the basic principles as well as the visible manifestations of Sunshine Week including thoughtful editorials, inside the Beltway events, state and local awards, and the many examples of collaborative focus on a fundamental principle of this democracy.

It’s also a reminder to get back to basics — I think of it as a sort of WWJMD? (What Would James Madison Do?) approach to Sunshine Week 2015.   The focus on Madison stems from the fact that the celebration of Sunshine Week is set to coincide with his birthday on March 16. Besides Madison has always been my go-to thinker on the sometimes elusive permutations of the freedom of information tenet. (http://www.twincities.com/opinion/ci_14680391)

My reflections have been informed and reinforced by a treasure collected and distributed by FreedomInfo.org. (http://www.freedominfo.org/resources/freedominfo-org-list-quotes-freedom-information/) The thoughtful staffers there have produced a robust collection of freedom of information quotes, arranged chronologically from the 18th Century to the present. “Light on ponderous material from the preambles of laws” the listing of quotes is lively, inclusive, and open-ended, inviting those who care about such things to add their own.   FreedomInfo’s collection is great reinforcement for my personal WWJMD? Challenge and a must for any group grappling with plans for Sunshine Week 2015.

The other indispensable resource for Sunshine Week planners is the abundant assistance provided by Debra Gersh Hernandez who has been the illuminating presence since the pre-dawn of the national Sunshine Week initiative. Deb is responsible for the Sunshine Week website (http://rcfp.org) and for the steady flow of tweets that keep the ideas and energy flowing from Sunshine Week planners around the nation.

A bit of background: Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Prime movers are freedom of information proponents including journalists, civic socity groups, libraries and archives, government officials, schools and universities, and an expanding cohort of advocates for transparency and accountability at every level of government. Key players at the federal level are the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Society of News Editors, organizations that welcome inclusion of the broadest possible circle of interest and activity. Sunshine Week 2015 is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation along with The Gridiron Cub and Foundation.

Sponsors and past participants in Sunshine Week offer a host of ideas and support materials, including an Idea Bank of “bright ideas” from a decade of Sunshine Week experience and a “Toolkit” rich with op ed pieces, editorial cartoons, logos, icons, sample proclamations and more. There is also a virtual catalog of Freedom of Information in action – samples of how federal and state freedom of information laws have been put to work to expose and resolve real life problems.

Back to my decentennial deliberations — WWJMD?   Admittedly, James Madison would have some catching up to do. On the one hand, he would hold the nation’s leaders feet to the fire, demanding that they move on passage of the bipartisan Freedom of Information Improvement Act sponsored by Senators Leahy and Cornyn. He would stoke up the heat under the President’s commitment to transparency as stated in the National Action Plan for Open Government.

Madison would applaud the unstinting work of state coalitions and national civic society efforts to keep the heat on – and to work with global freedom of information initiatives. And he would welcome the energy and commitment of the nation’s newest open government enthusiasts who are raising issues and developing new tools to make government information more accessible to more people. Most of all, he would work with leaders to make sure that all the players and stakeholders are at the table, talking with, not past, each other.

With specific reference to Sunshine Week 2015 Madison, the global thinker, would concur with British philosopher Jeremy Bentham who wrote that “without publicity, no good is permanent; under the auspices of publicity, no evil can continue.” (1768)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rays of Hope from Sunshine Week 2013

It’s eight years now since the first Sunshine Week, celebrated this week, March 10-March16.  Sunshine Week  is a national initiative to promote discussion about the importance of freedom of information and open government.  The week was chosen to coincide with the birthday of James Madison (more about the Mr. Madison later).  At the national level the prime mover behind Sunshine Week was the American Society of News Editors, later joined by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

In those eight years change on every front has transformed the very context in which we celebrate Sunshine Week 2013.   Change has occurred at such a dizzying pace that government, the press, and citizens may be at a loss, seeking for some framework to understand how open government could and should work in the 21st Century.

The fact that it is the press that initiated the concept of Sunshine Week is significant.  The media environment of today bears scant resemblance to what it was a decade ago.  Investigative reporting is more honored in the breach than in the observance.  Warp speed journalism doesn’t allow time for deep investigation.  The print press has faded in the wings as everyone with a smart phone is both a source and consumer of what passes for news.

The flow of information between government and the general populace is totally changed.  The government both gathers and produces information online – and with the change in format come challenges that confound agencies and constituencies alike.

Though the current administration has established policies to promote openness, the wheels of government grind slowly, and a strict diet of transparency is problematic at best.

So it is interesting to note what’s happening this week as the watchdogs of open government grapple with open government circa 2013.  Some examples:

  • Monday morning started with the Fourth Annual Department of Justice Sunshine Week Celebration at which the DOJ’s chief Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officer led a discussion of federal agencies’ improvements in FOIA administration.
  • Symbolic but important, at the same time there was a rare viewing and discussion of the Freedom of Information Act at the National Archives, including a demonstration of the multi-agency FOIA portal.  Despite the bold pronouncement that “all agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” charges of recalcitrance on the part of agencies will undoubtedly surfaced at this session.
  • On Tuesday, the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center  (EPIC) will host two panel discussions examining transparency and national security in the Obama administration’s second term.   These are all-star panels on hot topics.  This is one of two Sunshine Week sessions that will be webcast – reservations requested.  The webcast is Noon-3:00 p.m.  RSVP to www.foreffectivegov.org/webcastsrsvp
  • Also on Tuesday, March 12, the National Press Club’s Freedom of the Press Committee will hold a panel discussion, 6:30 p.m., about the effect on the press  of laws enacted globally after 9-11.
  • On Wednesday, March 12, there will be a hearing of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “We the People: Fulfilling the Promise of Open Government Five Years after The OPEN Government Act.”
  • At the same time Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the George Washington University Law School will be asking the question: Does U.S. Secret Law Threaten our Democracy?
  • Thursday the Brennan Center for Justice will host a panel discussion on the topic “Secrecy and Security: The Future of Classification Reform.”  Meanwhile the Cato Institute is holding a workshop looking at legislative data and Wikipedia and the National Press Club will host a panel discussion on using FOIA.
  • Friday is the Annual National Freedom of Information Day conference, this year at the Newseum.  In morning sessions Open the Government will presents its eighth annual Sunshine Week examination of the state of openness in the federal government, focusing this year on the outlook for the President’s second term.  The day includes a keynote discussion with First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams and a discussion of the new documentary Whistleblowers. The American Library Association will also presents it James Madison Award.  This FOI Day observance is the second of the week’s events that will be webcast beginning at 8:30 a.m. (7:30 CST)

It may tempting to think that these Sunshine Week activities are only for the Beltway Insiders and government geeks.  Still, without these Insiders, the watchdogs, the whistblowers and the faithful attendees at hearings and endless meetings,  the public right to access would surely be thwarted.

We depend on the eyes and ears – and collaborative efforts – of these observers to keep the decision-making processes remains open to the press and to the public.  They keep a watchful eye to be sure that the exigencies of the day do not interfere with the assumption of openness.  Though it may seem remote, consider these stories of the ways in which access to government information play out in the real world, the real world where it makes a difference to every one of us.

We may not be there to keep an eagle eye on the day’s decisions, but we live with the consequences.