SEJ Gains Ground For Press Freedoms, Information

May 15, 2008

 

By JOSEPH A. DAVIS

SEJ's efforts to roll back some of the government secrecy that has made reporters' jobs more difficult over the last decade won some ground since last year.

Working through its Freedom of Information Task Force, often with other journalism groups, SEJ's advocacy of open government posted successes on a variety of fronts. In fact, SEJ has often led the way for other groups.

Sunshine Week 2007 Audit Project

Every March, journalism and open-government groups celebrate "Sunshine Week" — a beehive of projects promoting better public access to information. In 2007, the national project was an audit of state and local government compliance with emergency planning disclosure requirements under EPCRA, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act.

EPCRA requires every community to have a "Local Emergency Planning Committee," which must draw up a plan for chemical emergencies and disclose it to the public on request. Under the audit project, reporters from more than 100 news media outlets across the country visited their local LEPCs and asked for a copy of the emergency plan. The audit found that only 44 percent of LEPCs nationwide were following the law on disclosure http://www.sunshineweek.org/sunshineweek/audit07.

The idea for the project came from SEJ's WatchDog Project, and SEJ worked with groups like the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, who coordinated the nationwide network of project volunteers. The upshot was many more local emergency responders becoming more aware of their disclosure responsibilities.

FOIA Update Bill Enacted; Implementation Next

Five years ago, when the Freedom of Information Act was under attack and new exemptions were multiplying in the name of homeland security, the fight was to keep FOIAfrom being eroded. The idea of actually strengthening it seemed like a pipe dream.Yet after almost three years of legislative effort, a FOIA-strengthening bill originally introduced by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) went the distance and was signed into law by President Bush on New Year's Eve 2007.

The bill was modest in its ambitions — although it did establish some mild penalties for agencies who do not meet the 20- day deadline for responding to FOIArequests. (Agencies who blow the deadline can't collect search or copy fees.)

President Bush signed the bill without any statement or ceremony, after his Justice Department and Office ofManagement and Budget had opposed many of its provisions.

SEJ was one of many journalism groups who helped inform people about the bill and called on the record forCongress to pass it.

But more effort may be required to force the executive branch to implement the new law. The bill's sponsors and journalism groups complained that Bush's 2009 budget proposed moving the FOIA "ombudsman's" office from the National Archives to the Justice Department, saying Justice had been an advocate for less disclosure. Congress may ignore Bush's request, but it could cause delay in getting the ombudsman's office up and running.

Photography Fees and Permits in Parks

The Interior Department's efforts to require permits and fees for news photography in parks got a warning shot across the bow from the House Natural Resources Committee in December 2007 — largely at SEJ's instigation.

SEJ President Timothy B. Wheeler testified before the committee, chaired by Nick Rahall (D-WV), saying Interior's proposed rule for "commercial filming" represents an unwarranted infringement on journalists' ability to cover natural resource issues on public lands. Other groups also testified with concerns about the proposed rule, including the Radio and Television News Directors Association and the National Press Photographers Association.

The Interior Department has not finalized the rule. But SEJ leaders are hopeful that SEJ's comments—along with the hearing — will prompt Interior to revise it.

Farm Bill Secrecy on Animal ID System

SEJ's FirstAmendmentTask Forcewon another success—at least a temporary one—in defeating language in the FarmBill that would have made it a crime to publish the address of a feedlot.

The language was meant to cloak in secrecy almost all information in the National Animal Identification System— an ill-starred federal effort to track food cattle, pigs and poultry from cradle to grave. The system is ostensibly meant to keep the public safe from diseases likeMad Cow (or its human version). But when the government denies people information about whether their food may be contaminated (much less the location of a smelly feedlot), the effect may be the opposite.

SEJ and other groups opposed the measure and got it changed in the Senate, thanks to effective lobbying by groups like the Sunshine in Government Initiative and the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government. But the outcome of Senate- House negotiations are uncertain, and the matter may end up for the Agriculture Department to decide.

Environmental Health Perspectives Privatization

Another long effort by SEJ's Watch- Dog Project to save a major conduit for communicating environmental health research to the public also seemed to succeed finally late in 2007.

Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), had been renowned for its example in publishing the latest trends and findings by scientists — and translating them not only for a general public audience, but also for audiences overseas in places like China.

The journal's existence seemed threatened when Bush administration appointees in September 2005 proposed "privatizing" it and cutting its budget by 80 percent — as well as eliminating generalaudience content and the Chinese edition. SEJ opposed this.

After two years of investigation and scandal—at first covered almost exclusively by SEJ's WatchDog newsletter — NIEHS Director David Schwartz resigned, privatization efforts were abandoned, and NIEHS' acting director promised to restore funding and abandon efforts to quell the journal.

Joe Davis directs the SEJ WatchDog Project and edits the WatchDog Tipsheet.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2008 issue

 

JOSEPH A. DAVIS