Monday, July 03, 2006

Happy birthday FOIA

On July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) opening up government files and meetings to the citizens of this country. We are a far better country because of this Act. Public officials cannot be held accountable if the public does not know what is going on. The government is not a private club.

However, the cult of secrecy is making a come back in our government. Ironically this is at a time when more and more nations around the world see the advantage of transparency because it builds legitimacy. In today’s Washington Post former President Jimmy Carter wrote:
Increasingly, developed and developing nations are recognizing that a
free flow of information is fundamental for democracy. Whether it's government
or private companies that provide public services, access to their records
increases accountability and allows citizens to participate more fully in public
life. It is a critical tool in fighting corruption, and people can use it to
improve their own lives in the areas of health care, education, housing and
other public services. Perhaps most important, access to information advances
citizens' trust in their government, allowing people to understand policy
decisions and monitor their implementation.

Nearly 70 countries have passed legislation to ensure the right to
request and receive public documents, the vast majority in the past decade and
many in middle- and low-income nations. While the United States retreats, the
international trend toward transparency grows, with laws often more
comprehensive and effective than our own. Unlike FOIA, which covers only the
executive branch, modern legislation includes all branches of power and some
private companies. Moreover, new access laws establish ways to monitor
implementation and enforce the right, holding agencies accountable for providing
information quickly and fully.

In the United States, we must seek amendments to FOIA to be more in
line with emerging international standards, such as covering all branches of
government; providing an oversight body to monitor compliance; including
sanctions for failure to adhere to the law; and establishing an appeal mechanism
that is easy to access, speedy and affordable. We cannot take freedom of
information for granted. Our democracy depends on it.

Corruption, incompetence and bad policy must not be hidden from the public. The public cannot exercise its civic duty in a vacuum. Secrecy is anathema to a free people.

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