Freedom of information threatened: press freedom groups call for end to secrecy

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The Freedom of Information Act (FOI) might give you the answer. Even if you don’t use it yourself, you will probably have seen what reporters have discovered while using it.

The FOI disclosures have shed light on the lack of pandemic preparedness, the Covid contracts that have gone to ministerial contacts, the dangers of smart highways, the discharge of untreated sewage into our waterways and the numbers of police showing that half of all illegal sexual contact with children involves apps owned by Facebook.

JTF has shed light on countless local issues, from potholes and parking to shopping, planning and utilities. Some will likely be highlighted this week in the News Media Association’s “Journalism Matters” campaign.

The FOI law has been attacked several times by the government, which finds the opening uncomfortable. Multiple attempts at sabotage have been repelled, including measures to charge people who make requests, exempt MPs’ expenses and block access to Whitehall political discussions. It would have prevented us from seeing whether the government had addressed the problems of a proposed policy or simply decided to ignore them.

Threats to freedom of information continue. A bill currently under consideration in Parliament will create a body to fund high-risk research, but will exempt it completely from freedom of information, supposedly to spare it the “bureaucracy” of responding to requests. The Advanced Research and Invention Agency will spend £ 800million in public money over 4 years, but the public will have better information rights from parish councils which, like most public bodies, are subject to freedom of information. The US body on which the UK agency is based is covered by US FOI law and on average only receives one FOI request per week, hardly a debilitating burden.

Another current bill will establish the health services safety investigative body to investigate incidents that put patients at risk. He will report on his findings, but any information he chooses not to publish will be blocked under JTF. Incredibly, a whistleblower who reveals that the new agency has failed to contact key witnesses to a medical accident will commit a criminal offense.

The government is proposing to toughen the official secrets law to make it easier to convict whistleblowers and journalists who publish what they reveal. Currently, the maximum penalty for conviction is two years’ imprisonment. Surprisingly, the Home Office says the maximum for leaks should be the same as for espionage – fourteen years in prison.

The Law Commission recommended that anyone charged under this law could argue that the disclosure was in the public interest. The government seems prepared to reject this. Threatening those who expose government misconduct with oppressive sanctions will ensure that inappropriate behavior continues.

The Freedom of Information Act is an easier way to get information. It is far from perfect. There may be long delays in obtaining information. But it is one of the essential tools to keep the public informed and official bodies honest. Keep this in mind – you may have to use it yourself!

Maurice Frankel is director of the Freedom of Information Campaign.

The campaign played a key role in the passage of the Freedom of Information Act in 2000 and helped thousands of people exercise their rights under it. For more information and to support the campaign (which urgently needs it) visit www.crowdfunder.co.uk/fight-secrecy


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