Media Watch: Bush Administration, Saudi Arabia and Free Expression

President Bush 'quietly' signed in to law the revamped Freedom of Information Act just before the new year. But don't get to excited yet - make sure you read the last sentence.

(Indiania) Tribune-Star editorial: Federal action strengthens access to info

In the waning hours of 2007 President Bush quietly signed into law Senate Bill 2488, a long-overdue strengthening and expansion of the Freedom of Information Act.

Bush’s lack of comment indicates his opinion of the legislation. Had support for it not been so overwhelming — it passed the Senate and House unanimously, thus rendering his signature moot — he likely would have vetoed it. After all, it is the Bush administration’s instinct for secrecy that inspired such rare cooperation on Capitol Hill.

Even members of the president’s own party understood that the 42-year-old Freedom of Information Act has been hobbled by White House practices. What a united Congress reaffirmed with the new FOIA provisions was this: Sept. 11, 2001 changed many aspects of life in the United States, but one of them should not be the citizens’ right to know what their government is doing in their name.

About the only unattractive element of the OPEN Government Act of 2007 is its unwieldy and repetitive full title. OPEN stands for Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government. The rest of the law is cause for celebration by citizens, scholars and members of both the traditional news media and the increasingly influential “new media” of independent and blogosphere journalists.

Among the law’s provisions:

n “Presumption of disclosure standards” were restored, which means government agencies are again expected to comply with FOIA requests unless an official finding declares that a particular disclosure could be harmful to the country.

Since October 2001, it’s been the other way around. To ask for information from our own government was to be on the defensive. Under then-attorney general John Ashcroft, policy was changed to provide information “only after full and deliberate consideration of institutional, commercial and personal privacy interests that could be implicated by disclosure of the information.”

Information about government contracts with private entities is fair game for FOIA requests.

If a government agency fails to meet a 20-day deadline for responding to a FOIA request, it can’t charge for research time or copying the information it ultimately provides. When the information comes in crates of 2-inch-thick documents, that kind of foot-dragging will cost a small fortune.

If a person or group must take an agency to court to force FOIA compliance, it will be easier for those who’ve sued to receive attorneys fees.

An ombusdsmen-type office within the National Archives will be established to handle FOIA complaints from citizens and to render opinions about rules and protocols.

Along with a national hotline on which citizens can track their requests for information, the definition of “journalist” now includes people from many non-traditional areas of news gathering, making them eligible for reduced professional rates for filing, processing and copying.

There is one qualifying note that must be sounded amid the nearly universal celebration of the OPEN Government Act of 2007. No doubt, it was not lost on the president. The law does not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2009, 20 days before George W. Bush vacates office.

While it is all well and good to have more access to official government paperwork, the media needs this access now. The Bush administration has put a tight leash on infomation especially regarding the so-called 'War on Terror' and its cover up of what is really going on in Iraq, Gitmo, Pakistan etc. It is no coincidence that this act goes into effect after the current administration leaves office.

Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, another blogger, Fouad al-Farhan, was arrested. This time he was arrested December 10. In an e-mail posted on the site since his arrest, he told friends that he faced arrest for his support of 10 reform advocates the Saudi government accuses of supporting terrorism. Please support his release by signing this online petition: http://en.freefouad.com/



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