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United States20 March 2009

Attorney General applies presumption of openness in Freedom of Information Act guidelines

Reporters Without Borders today welcomed US Attorney General Eric Holder’s guidelines on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in which he expressly breaks with the Bush Administration’s stance of withholding information and applies a presumption of openness, in a memo to heads of executive deparments and agencies.

The memo stipulates that federal departments should “readily and systematically post information online in advance of any public request.” In addition, the agencies should have the tools they need to respond promptly and efficiently to FOIA requests. Further, each agency’s Chief FOIA officer must ensure compliance with the law so that that whenever documents can not be released in full, as much as possible should be released. Finally, FOIA denials will only be defended if an agency “reasonably foresees that the disclosure would harm an interest protected by one of the statutory exemptions.”

“Access to public information is an essential lever in a democracy and Attorney General Holder’s guidelines should help to restore it,” the worldwide press freedom organization said. “The justice ministry has introduced major changes to the practices of the Bush Administration that classified all kinds of information with no real justification. It is a positive step forward for the free flow of information and the American people’s right to be informed. It will set the tone for how the executive branch complies with the clauses of the FOIA.”

The new guidelines enshrine statements made by President Barack Obama on January 21, after his inauguration, when he stressed that the FOIA had not been adopted to "keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears."

“The Bush era presumption was that information should be kept secret and the burden was put on the person making a request for it to be revealed to prove otherwise,” Reporters Without Borders said. “In future it should be the principles of openness and transparency that prevail.”

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