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Monday, April 06, 2009

The state of FOI:a phrase, a sentence or about 240 words.

I know that editors and journalists have to be short and sharp, but in an otherwise fair comment about the state of the game and particularly the wider impact of lies to journalists in today's Australian, the reference to "Freedom of Information laws that barely function" is too harsh. John Hartigan, News CEO and Australia's Right to Know leader at the Free Speech Conference put it this way: "Freedom of Information has not worked as envisaged. In fact it’s become an oxymoron." The first part is right; the second a search for a headline.

A Google News search for "Freedom of Information" pages from Australia turns up plenty of media reports in any week based on documents obtained under the various freedom of information acts. And of course plenty of stories about delays, costs and knockbacks as well. We don't know but can summise about
the non-media experience.

As evidence I'll never get a job in the media the extract below is a reminder of the conclusions about FOI in Australia in the Independent Audit of Free Speech Report for ARTK in October 2007.This still to my mind holds up almost 17 months later-I would say that wouldn't I? The question now is whether the current interest in reform will produce solutions to these problems.I notice ARTK has only a 14 page Summary of the Report on its relatively new website. Here is the full text of the 360 pages if you are interested. State of free speech in Australia-pdf.
"FOI laws work reasonably to provide access to personal information about the applicant, and on occasion to information about other important matters of public interest and concern. However, several factors result in FOI working less well in accessing documents relevant to government accountability. An issue in all jurisdictions is that governments have not taken sustained measures to deal with an enduring “culture of secrecy” still evident in many government agencies. Ministers and senior public service leaders have not been consistent strong advocates of open government principles.
FOI performance is patchy across all governments. In some agencies applications are managed in a professional manner and decisions on access reflect the law, its spirit and intent. In other cases the FOI process involves delay, high cost, and limited access to requested documents, often on grounds that suggest determined attempts to protect politically sensitive information. Claims that FOI is achieving its intended purpose, including opening government activities to scrutiny and criticism, are not substantiated by the available evidence.
FOI, in the federal arena in particular, is marked by a high degree of legal technicality which tends to dominate considerations about whether disclosure is in the public interest, or may demonstrate harm to an essential public interest. There are problems and inadequacies in the design of the laws; too much scope for
interpretation of exemption provisions in ways that lead to refusal of access to documents about matters of public interest and concern; cost barriers to access; and slow review processes that often fail to provide cost-effective resolution of complaints."

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