Tuesday, July 10, 2007

More reasons to care about the Freedom of Information Act reform bill stalled in the Senate

The Rural Blog and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues are not advocates -- except for coverage of issues, and laws that help journalists perform their First Amendment functions. That's why we keep reminding you that the House has passed a bill to improve the Freedom of Information Act and the Senate is sitting on it, because of a "hold" by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the 41-year-old FOIA is that costly lawsuits are often the only way to challenge federal agencies' denial of records or get them to even respond to records requests. Most states have an official, such as the attorney general, to provide a quick, inexpensive appeal. The bill in Congress would create a FOIA ombudsman to mediate disputes between agencies and record-seekers. It would also restore meaningful deadlines for agency, create real consequences for agencies that miss deadlines; clarify that FOIA applies to agency records held by outside private contractors and set up a FOIA hotline service. For details on the bill, from sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., click here.

Some requests filed almost 20 years ago are still pending, according to the Knight Open Government Survey released July 2 by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. "In January, the archive filed FOIA requests with 87 federal agencies for copies of their 10 oldest open or pending requests," writes Stephanie Kanowitz, Web editor for Federal Computer Week magazine. "Five agencies — the State Department, Air Force, CIA and the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and FBI — reported FOIA requests that have been pending for at least 15 years, according to the report. Other findings include: Ten agencies misreported their oldest pending FOIA requests to Congress in their fiscal 2006 Annual FOIA Reports, which are required by law; 10 agencies misrepresented their FOIA backlogs to Congress; several agencies contradicted their own responses to the archive’s two previous “10 oldest” audits by reporting requests this year that were significantly older than those they produced in 2003 or 2005.

So, why should rural journalists care about FOIA? Because it opens to door to information in federal agencies that can have a lot to do with things in your area -- crime, education, the environment and federal spending, to name a few. If you think the act needs improving, write about it -- and ask your senator about it the next time he or she comes to visit. For an example, from the Kentucky New Era, see the third item below.

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