Reporters Without Borders welcomes the amendments to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that President George W. Bush signed into law on 31 December, although it regrets that these amendments, which improve public access to information about federal government activity, have come so late in an administration that has shown little respect for this principle.
“This is unquestionably a major step forward, albeit belated, one that promotes more transparency and control of the government’s activities by its citizens,” the press freedom organisation said. “It also enshrines the US congress’s efforts in the face of a government given to concealment. We should nonetheless not forget how transparency and freedoms were suppressed after 9/11.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “The White House and federal government must now respect the need for more openness on such issues as the Guantanamo detainees and the CIA’s secret prisons, in which secrecy and the suppression of information have been the rule.”
The amendments to the FOIA, which were approved unanimously by congress, set up a hotline for requests for information, establish a tracking system for requests once they have been made and create an office to mediate in disputes. They also reinforce a requirement that federal agencies meet a 20-day deadline for responding to requests, facilitate the recovery of legal fees by those forced to sue to get information and give a broad definition of journalists (who are allowed access to information free of charge). In short, federal agencies are required to provide information on request unless it entails a major national security risk.
Congress’s desire to combat the current’s administration’s secrecy was already seen in October, when the House of Representatives passed the “Free Flow of Information Act,” a federal shield law that provides federal protection for the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.
The amendments to the FOIA come 11 months before a presidential election and just weeks after it emerged that the CIA destroyed videos of terrorism suspects being interrogated (some of them in Guantanamo) that had been requested as evidence in court. The destruction of the videos has been the subject of a criminal investigation since 2 January.