2004 Archives: SEJ Speaks on FOI Issues

September 10, 2004
SEJ opposes rider with new FOIA exemption for satellite data and studies on Earth resources

The Society of Environmental Journalists joined other journalism groups September 10, 2004, urging Congressional leaders to strip a new FOIA exemption for certain satellite data on the Earth's resources from the 2005 Defense Authorization Bill (S 2400).

The letter was signed jointly by leaders of SEJ and the National Association of Science Writers and addressed to leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. Those two panels are headed for conference as early as the week of September 13 to reconcile versions of the defense bill passed by each. The new Freedom of Information Act exemption is in the Senate-passed version, but not the House-passed version.

The provision does not merely exempt certain data from FOIA, but prohibits its disclosure on any terms, citing security concerns as a reason. Just which data it covers, however, is murky. Journalism, environmental, and open government groups fear that it could be used to restrict access to data from platforms like Landsat 7, the latest in a family of satellites which for three decades has been the foundation of studies in the earth sciences, commercially valuable information for industries like agriculture and forestry, and journalism about almost anything environmental.

"If enacted, the provision could make it very hard for reporters to tell their audiences whether the rain forest is shrinking, whether San Diego is sprawling, or whether algae are taking over Lake Erie," SEJ's letter said. "Satellite images help track the effects of invasive species, soil erosion, strip mining, and illegal dumping, to mention only a few examples. Without information of this quality, the public can not take part in formulation of intelligent policies. Without it, we are flying blind."

It is unclear whether the rider is meant to apply to any, some, or all Landsat 7 data. It also prohibits disclosure of any data products, maps, or studies based on the blacked out data, and pre-empts state FOI laws. A 1992 law requires Landsat data to be distributed openly at "cost," but waives certain FOIA requirements to allow USGS (its sole distributor) to charge higher prices. Landsat 7 data, with a resolution of only 15 meters, is hardly good enough to distinguish an oil tank from an ice rink, and would be of minimal use to terrorists.

The provision seems instead meant to prop up profits of data resellers undercut by some companies' use of state FOIA laws to get the data. It also seems meant to keep terrorists from using FOIA to get data from a new hawk-eyed generation of entirely private satellites licensed by the federal government.

The Senate-passed provision, knowledgeable Hill sources say, was requested by the Pentagon, although it is unclear whether the measure had White House backing. Because it was added to the bill with no hearings and only a cryptic explanation in the legislative report, almost nobody in Washington knows what it would do.

SEJ's letter of opposition echoed one sent September 3 by the Radio-Television News Directors Association, for whom satellite pictures have always meant great visuals. Other opposition came from the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and other journalism, open government, and environmental groups.

August 24, 2004
SEJ joins >26 journo groups to support reporters' privilege

The Society of Environmental Journalists joined at least 26 other national journalism groups on August 24, 2004, in signing a statement of support for journalists found in contempt of court for protecting confidential sources.

Hundreds of individual journalists have also signed the statement, which is expected to run soon as a full-page ad in newspapers around the country. Journalists can sign up online quickly just by visiting a page on the Web site of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The number of organizations signing on is growing daily.

Signers argue that journalists can only get information from whistleblowers and other vulnerable sources if they can believably promise a source that his or her identity will not be disclosed. Some 31 states and the District of Columbia have "shield" laws protecting the reporter's privilege of confidentiality.

During August 2004 there were subpoenas or contempt orders against 11 different U.S. reporters in three different cases (the Valerie Plame, Wen Ho Lee, and Buddy Cianci cases) for resisting efforts by the judicial system to force them to disclose confidential sources. The number was unprecedented, and has caused many journalists grave concern about their ability to get information from sources.

Virtually all of the national journalism organizations, under the umbrella of the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, have endorsed a "Statement of Support" intended be run as a full-page ad in national newspapers. In this case, they are also asking for the signatures of INDIVIDUAL JOURNALISTS to be run with the ad.

August 16, 2004
Journalism groups join SEJ on Homeland Security comments

Eleven major journalism groups joined the Society of Environmental Journalists to voice concern over proposed secrecy on environmental impacts of actions by the Department of Homeland Security. SEJ filed official comments July 14, 2004, on a DHS proposal that allowed considerable secrecy in how it carries out the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). After the deadline for comments on the DHS proposal was extended, the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government signed on to an expanded version of the SEJ comments. Among the groups specifically endorsing these comments were the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Newspaper Association of America, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Text of comments.

July 29, 2004
SEJ voices concern on journalist visa restrictions

The Society of Environmental Journalists joined two other journalism groups, the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), in protesting restrictions on the entry of foreign journalists into the US that go far beyond those imposed on ordinary tourists. The practice could skew coverage of global environmental issues from venues like the United Nations.

The three groups sent a letter July 28, 2004, to top immigration officials protesting a requirement for visas (prior permission to enter the US) for journalists from 27 countries the US considers friendly. Ordinary citizens from those 27 nations can come here to work or vacation for up to 90 days without visas. However, journalists from those nations must get special visas before leaving their home countries. The backlog for processing such visas now runs one or two months — making it impossible for many foreign reporters to cover breaking stories. Since the 9/11 attacks, the letter stated, "more than a dozen journalists, most from France or Britain, have been detained, interrogated, searched and held in cells — sometimes in conditions that were uncomfortable and humiliating — before being deported to their home countries, all because they lacked visas."

The letter was sent to Commissioner Robert C. Bonner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. It was also sent to members of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee and House Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims. The complete text of the letter is available here. A similar letter was sent separately by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

You'll find additional coverage of this issue in the July 28, 2004, WatchDog.



 July 16, 2004
SEJ joins news media coalition in challenging homeland security maritime secrecy

The Society of Environmental Journalists has joined eight other journalism organizations in challenging new rules on maritime "sensitive security information" issued by the Department of Homeland Security.

The groups jointly filed formal comments July 16, 2004, in a rulemaking by the DHS on the expanding category of SSI. The department had put the rules into effect on an "interim" basis May 18, 2004, while inviting comment for the record.

The rule is intended to apply principally to port and maritime security information, but is drawn so broadly that it could include all kinds of environmental information related to ports, the coastal zone, and the marine environment.

SEJ is one of more than a dozen groups cooperating on efforts to defend freedom of information and the First Amendment — known as the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government (CJOG). The groups include the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Associated Press Managing Editors, Committee of Concerned Journalists, National Association of Science Writers, Newspaper Association of America, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Radio-Television News Directors Association, and Society of Professional Journalists.

The full text of the Coalition's comments can be downloaded here (requires free Adobe Acrobat ® reader). Previous WatchDog coverage of this issue is available here.

July 14, 2004
SEJ urges Homeland Security Dept. to limit NEPA secrecy proposal

The Society of Environmental Journalists has voiced concern over a proposal to keep secret some of the environmental assessments done by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

"Public disclosure of information is the heart and soul of the National Environmental Policy Act," SEJ wrote DHS on July 14, 2004. SEJ was commenting for the record on a proposed DHS directive for handling NEPA matters at the agency. The directive was published June 14, 2004, in the Federal Register to invite public comment.

If finalized, the proposal would carve a major loophole in the 34-year-old law which is the keystone of much modern environmental law. NEPA required that the federal government publicly disclose the environmental impacts of major federal actions before they are taken.

You'll find background information in the July 15, 2004, issue of the WatchDog, and the full text of SEJ's comments here.



May 18, 2004
SEJ joins J-group coalition urging less homeland security secrecy

SEJ joined 13 other journalism groups May 18, 2004, in urging the Department of Homeland Security to limit the sweeping scope of its rule for protecting "critical infrastructure information" (CII) from potential terrorists.

At issue is information about vulnerabilities to everything from petrochemical and drinking water plants to the food supply and banking system. Under a 2002 law, the Department of Homeland Security can keep secret certain information that is "voluntarily submitted" by industry. Environmental and consumer groups worry that industries can use exemptions in the law to escape prosecution for pollution — and get away with not fixing the dangers they report.

SEJ's decision to endorse the position taken by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government was made by President Dan Fagin, with concurrence by Freedom of Information Task Force Chair Ken Ward Jr., board liaison Robert McClure, and Watchdog project director Joseph A. Davis. The SEJ Board's charter for the Task Force authorizes such moves.

SEJ had commented on DHS's original rulemaking (see item below, dated June 16, 2003) last year. DHS issued an "interim" rule Feb. 18, 2004, and invited the current round of comments before putting the rule in "final" form.

May 14, 2004
SEJ urges OMB to withdraw peer review proposal

The Society of Environmental Journalists on May 14, 2004, urged the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to withdraw a proposal that could increase White House powers to prevent publication of scientific studies, especially those related to the environment. After consideration by its Freedom of Information Task Force, SEJ called for withdrawal of the OMB "Revised Information Quality Bulletin on Peer Review."

SEJ was joined by the National Association of Science Writers in this position — stated in formal comments on the bulletin submitted for the record to OMB. The comments were signed by SEJ President Dan Fagin, Task Force Chair Ken Ward Jr., Board-Task Force Liaison Robert McClure, WatchDog Project Director Joseph A. Davis, and NASW President Deborah Blum.

For background, see the April 21, 2004, issue of the WatchDog. The full text of SEJ's comments is available here.

March 18, 2004
SEJ joins AHCJ & other j-groups decrying fake news reports

The Society of Environmental Journalists, along with sixteen other journalism groups, joined with the Association of Health Care Journalists today in asking the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to stop using video news releases that have the appearance of authentic news reports.

On Monday, the New York Times reported that the Bush administration paid people to pose as journalists praising the benefits of the new Medicare law, including expanded coverage of prescription medicines.

SEJ president Dan Fagin noted: "We've seen a disturbing trend recently of public agencies closing off access to documents and other important information. Now that the government is disguising public-relations messages as phony news reports, the public will be even more in the dark. A healthy democracy needs open government and credible information."

Read the AHCJ release, including the list of j-groups.