Sunshine Week 2009: March 15-21

Sunshine Week, launched by the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2005, is a national effort to inform the public about the importance of open government and the free flow of information.

This week, newspapers across the country will once again sponsor panel discussions, Webcasts and op-eds pushing the American ideals of a free press and citizen access to the inner workings of government.

In recognition of Sunshine Week, News graphic artist Daniel Zakroczemski has created a poster celebrating freedom of information. To download a copy of the poster, click here.

Sunshine Week 2009 Calendar of Events

Survey Of State Government Information Online

Most Americans can easily find videos of water skiing squirrels on the Internet but they’ll have less luck finding out whether their children's school buses and classrooms are safe, or if neighborhood gas stations are overcharging. The Sunshine Week 2009 Survey of State Government Information online found that while more and more government records are being posted online, some of the most important information is being left offline. And in some cases governments are charging taxpayers to access records that they already paid for, such as death certificates. Read the report....

Sunshine Week Toolkit

Sunshine Week Newswire


For release: March 13, 2009

Federal Govt. Still Viewed as Secretive;
President's FOI Orders Get High Marks

Washington, D.C. — For the first time in four years, public opinion about government secrecy has leveled off, although more than seven in 10 adults still consider the federal government to be secretive, according to the 2009 Sunshine Week survey by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.

Since 2006, the percentage of adults who believe the federal government to be somewhat or very secretive has grown steadily; from 62 percent in 2006 to 74 percent in 2008. The latest survey finds 73 percent characterizing federal government as secretive.

This mood is perhaps buoyed by the nearly eight in 10 adults who think President Obama's Freedom of Information directive calling for a presumption of disclosure is the right thing to do.

"Trust in government has been on the decline for some time in the United States. The previous administration's disclosure policies certainly contributed to public skepticism," said Jerry Miller, director of the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. "People now appear more optimistic, but still guarded, about President Obama and the current administration's disclosure practices under the Freedom of Information Act."

As in previous years' surveys, people see their state and local governments as more open than the federal system. At the state level, 54 percent view government as open, 44 percent as secretive. People also are more trusting of local public officials. More than half, 56 percent, say their local government is very or somewhat open, with 44 percent rating it as very or somewhat open.

"The more open our government, the more inclusive the processes that impact our everyday lives," noted Rich Boehne, president and chief executive officer of The E.W. Scripps Co.

Two-thirds of adults (67 percent) say they've heard of the federal Freedom of Information Act, and when told about it, slightly more (77 percent) think it is a good law. However, hardly anyone surveyed had ever used it. Nine in 10 adults (94 percent) have never requested information using a FOIA request. None of this, of course, dulls their skepticism about compliance with the law: 61 percent say they believe the federal government only sometimes, rarely or never obeys FOIA law.

"It's heartening there is a reversal in the downward trend of public confidence in the openness of the federal government," said Andrew Alexander, co-chair of the American Society of Newspaper Editor's FOI Committee.

"But it's sobering to note that more than half of those surveyed said they still believe their government only sometimes, rarely or never abides by disclosure requirements mandated by law," added Alexander, who is ombudsman at The Washington Post.

The survey of 946 adults was conducted by telephone from Feb. 16 through March 11 by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University under a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation. The survey has a margin of error of about 4 percentage points.

The survey has been commissioned by ASNE for Sunshine Week since 2006, Sunshine Week is a non-partisan open government initiative led by ASNE, with print, online and broadcast media; public officials; civic groups and non-profit organizations; public and special libraries; educators and students; religious leaders; and others. It is primarily funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The following are select findings from the survey.

Read the rest here ...


Related editorial from BuffaloNews.com:

Out Of The Shadows
New administration offers hope for more freedom of information
By Jerry Zremski
BuffaloNews.com

WASHINGTON--On his first full day in office, President Obama opened the curtain on the federal government wider than it had been opened in eight years.

And in the days since, his administration has tried, on occasion, to pull it shut again.

Perhaps that should be no surprise. After all, government secrecy is as old as government itself, and old habits are hard to change.

But Obama's easing of restrictions on the Freedom of Information Act, the landmark legislation that opened most government records to the public's eyes 42 years ago, and his administration's actions since, have set the tone for the fifth annual Sunshine Week.

Launched by the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2005, Sunshine Week is a national effort to inform the public about the importance of open government and the free flow of information.

This week, newspapers across the country will once again sponsor panel discussions and Webcasts and op-eds pushing the American ideals of a free press and citizen access to the inner workings of government.

Click here to download a poster of the Sunshine Week artwork.

They do so in a much different environment than in past years—one in which the government is opening itself up a bit at least, at a time when technology is fast changing how information is gathered and shared.

Obama signaled a vast change in government openness in a memo to his executive departments on Jan. 21.

The new president ordered the Justice Department to draw up new guidelines for administering the Freedom of Information Act to replace the much-criticized "Ashcroft memo."

Issued by then-Attorney General John B. Ashcroft in 2001, that memo says the Justice Department will defend an agency's decision to withhold records "unless they lack a sound legal basis or present an unwarranted

risk of adverse impact on the ability of other agencies to protect other important records."

Obama's order turns the Ashcroft memo on its head.

"The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails," Obama said.

"The government should not 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. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve."

Hearing that, advocates of an open government were thrilled. Several dozen groups, ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Freedom of Information Coalition to Transparency International, wrote an open letter praising the president's actions.

"President Obama has demonstrated global leadership on this issue, signaling the fundamental importance of open government in a democracy," the letter said. "We call on governments around the world to take similar action to promote transparency and respect for the right of access to information."

The Obama memo essentially returns the federal government to the presumption of openness that existed before the Bush administration, said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

"It's a 180-degree reversal from what was a complete aberration," said Davis.

In addition, several days after taking office, Obama sent another memo to federal departments, directing them to increase the amount of information they make public without the prod of a Freedom of Information request, said Patrice McDermott, director of Openthegovernment.org.

Obama also has set up a Web site, recovery. gov, where data about federal stimulus spending will be posted. And he's lifted the ban on news media coverage of the ceremonies honoring the fallen war dead when their remains arrive back in the United States. The president "seems to see government transparency as something more than FOIA," Davis said.

On other occasions, though, the Obama administration has shown some signs that its actions on government openness issues may not always match the president's stirring words.

Several times since Obama issued that statement, the Justice Department has opposed delaying freedom of information lawsuits until the new FOIA standards are fully in place.

In one instance, Justice Department attorneys told a judge that it "is not clear that the new guidelines, once issued, will be retrospective to FOIA requests that the agency already has finished processing," according to the Associated Press.

And on top of that, in a federal appeals court, the Obama Justice Department last month defended the Bush administration's use of the State Secrets Act to end a lawsuit by former CIA detainees who say they were flown to other countries and tortured in pursuit of information helpful to the war on terror.

White House counsel Gregory B. Craig defended the administration's actions, telling the New York Times: "Every president in my lifetime has invoked the state secrets privilege. The notion that invoking it in that case somehow means we are signing on to the Bush approach to the world is just an erroneous assumption."

Yet the Obama administration's stance on the state secrets issue came as a huge disappointment to Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU.

"This is not change," Romero said. "This is definitely more of the same. Candidate Obama ran on a platform that would reform the abuse of state secrets, but President Obama's Justice Department has disappointingly reneged on that important civil liberties issue."

But other open-government advocates, such as Davis, stress that the State Secrets Act offers necessary protections that help protect important information.

"It would be foolish to take that tool and throw it on the ground here," Davis said.

The Obama administration's full record on open government issues will only reveal itself over time, said Gene Policinski, vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center.

"The overall tendency has been for the president to come into office espousing more open government, but neither Democrats nor Republicans have covered themselves in glory by the time their administration ends," Policinski said.

Nevertheless, advocates of openness already are listing potential agenda items for the administration and the nation.

For Davis, one top issue is passing a bill reforming the Freedom of Information Act to broaden the amount of information that it makes available.

A bill signed into law about a year ago was largely procedural in nature, and did not take into account big issues such as the current law's privacy exemption — which, according to Davis, is "interpreted so unbelievably broadly" in order to keep government information secret.

Davis and others also advocate encouraging government at all levels to make more information available online, without the hassle of a Freedom of Information request.

"Online access to public records is the next battleground for Freedom of Information advocates," said Andy Alexander, ombudsman at the Washington Post and co-chairman of the American Society of Newspaper Editors' FOI Committee. To prepare the battleground, Sunshine Week organizers are studying the public records that states make available on their Web sites. At the same time, openness advocates are surveying local government Web sites as well as those online at the federal level.

And Openthegovernment.org, along with the Center for Democracy and Technology, has conducted a survey on the "most requested documents" that the federal government should make available on the Web.

While the survey results will be released this week, top candidates include Congressional Research Service reports, usage of the USA Patriot Act and complete data about where financial bailout funds have gone.

All this comes at a time when one of the most reliable users of such information — the mainstream media — finds itself in a life-and-death struggle to find a way to survive in the Internet era.

Thanks to journalism job cuts, "there are simply not as many cops on the beat, and that's going to be a problem," Alexander said. "There's also a concern about a corresponding lack of resources in fighting for public information in court."

Policinski agreed.

"It would be a terrible irony to live in an era when government was more open and, because no one was there to interpret the information, the public gets less information than it did before," he said.

But Davis noted that journalists are not the top users of the Freedom of Information Act. Average citizens are — and that's why Sunshine Week is not just an inside-baseball issue for the media elite.

With the Obama administration promising a more interactive, participatory democracy, the public likely will have new ways to get involved and new ways to hold the government accountable, good-government advocates said.

And that means an entirely new era for people who have spent much of the past few years fighting ever-tighter controls on the public's right to know.

"We've been so focused on pushing back the bad stuff that it's just in the past year that we've started to focus on the good stuff," McDermott said.

jzremski@buffnews.com

Source URL: http://www.buffalonews.com/149/story/608406.html

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