Partisan politics had nothing to do with the National Freedom of Information Day forum held March 16 at Washington’s Newseum. Yet, a recurring and overriding concern expressed throughout the conference by leading journalists, academics and First Amendment lawyers was that Obama White House has restricted access to information the public should have, despite Mr. Obama’s campaign pledge to make government more transparent.
In fact, the White House has fought free access to information more vigorously than any other administration in recent memory, was a consensus among experts.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is one of the most powerful tools to pry public information out of the federal government. But while FOIA requires agencies to respond to a request for information within 20 business days, a recent analysis of FOIA requests shows that many agencies are violating the law by failing to meet even this basic requirement. It’s as if they just ignore the requests or respond with a battery of government lawyers to fight it.
The current Freedom of Information environment gets murkier in the area of whistleblowers and information leaked to the media. Despite federal laws to protect whistleblowers, the Obama administration is taking hard, punitive action against anyone who reveals information about something wrong, dangerous or illegal in the government.
Despite panelists with diverse credentials brought together to discuss “Whistleblowers and the Press,” there was consensus about the possibly of dire consequences against anyone who dared to speak out. Panelists included Tom Bowman of NPR; Mark Cohen, Office of Special Counsel; Lucy Dalglish of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; and, Matthew Miller, formerly with the Department of Justice. The session was moderated by famed trial attorney Abbe Lowell.
Other sessions featured Vinton Cerf, considered the “father of the Internet,” and how with Google on the issue of freedom of information worldwide.
To me, what is most striking and revealing about today’s state of the news media was the absence of media coverage at the conference. Despite attempts by organizers to get media coverage, none showed up. I believe that tells us something about today’s news media … which is completely and desperately lost to itself in the scramble for ratings, celebrity, sensational headlines and shrill pundits. Freedom of information doesn’t seem to be in the cards for them.