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Editorial: Strengthen law to hold government accountable

Even before Watergate, the Freedom of Information Act was helping guarantee public access to data, documents and other information Americans are entitled to and need to hold government — and government officials — accountable.

There has been a vast volume of success in uncovering government fraud, waste and abuse via records searches.

But success doesn’t mean that, to remain effective, the federal law and its state-by-state companion measures — including Minnesota’s Government Data Practices Act — can’t always use updating and improving. The law that helps assure democracy stands to benefit from constant review, tweaks with changing times and thoughtful improvement.

And right now, during the yearlong countdown to the 50th anniversary of the federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, Congress can embrace bipartisan measures that would require federal government to presume openness rather than secrecy, streamline technology so the public can submit public information requests via a single portal, stop allowing agencies to keep secret internal deliberations if they’re more than 25 years old, and more.

“With documents obtained under FOIA, investigative journalists have broken stories about historical CIA abuses, mistreatment of veterans at the VA medical offices, overdue inspections of the United States’ aging infrastructure, use of immigrant detention centers to hold minors, corporate abuse and much more,” the American Forum Media Service said in an editorial board memo Monday to the News Tribune and other news outlets. “For every breaking story made possible by the FOIA, countless others are undoubtedly buried as the law’s effectiveness sags under the weight of backlogs, inconsistent proactive disclosure, overbroad exemptions and outdated technology.”

The media service was joined by the Sunlight Foundation, a bipartisan national nonprofit that advocates for open government, by, a coalition united to make the federal government more open, and others in calling for FOIA reforms.

The call came after a two-day hearing in June in Washington, D.C., hosted by the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, at which Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy Director Melanie Pustay she was in “la-la-land” if she believed FOIA was being properly implemented.

The call for FOIA reforms came a week after more than 50 media and open-government groups sent a letter pleading with President Barack Obama “to stop practices in federal agencies that prevent important information from getting to the public,” as the Society of Professional Journalists stated it. The unacceptable policies include prohibiting journalists from communicating directly with staff and even requiring government public information offices to vet interview questions and monitor interviews. This was the second such letter the groups have sent to the White House.

“On his first day in office, Obama issued a directive to create the Open Government Initiative, aimed at ‘creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,’ in the president’s words,” Ernst-Ulrich Franzen, associate editorial page editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote in a Sunday column. “Reality is falling short of (the administration’s) promise.”

“Any time government at any level suppresses information, the public suffers,” Franzen further wrote.

Even after 50 years, pledges of transparency and government openness consistently and maddeningly keep falling short, making necessary constant review, tweaks with changing times and thoughtful improvement — including reforms being considered now by Congress.

–Duluth News Tribune