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An alliance of more than 50 journalism and open government advocacy organizations, including the New England First Amendment Coalition, continues to push for more transparency within the federal government.
Several journalists and attorneys representing the alliance met with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest late last year to voice concerns about policies within federal agencies that impede access to information such as blocking reporters’ requests for interviews and excessive delays in answering interview requests. The delegation included four journalists from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the legal counsel for the American Society of News Editors.
“We had some (follow-up) communication with Earnest’s office in January, shortly after the State of the Union address, and his staff assured us they are looking at the issues raised and materials the group left with them during the meeting,” SPJ’s Jennifer Royer said.
The December 15 meeting came in response to a letter the organizations sent to President Obama on August 10 expressing “deep concerns” about constraints on information flow and asking the president to issue an executive order to end practices that prevent federal agencies from releasing important information.
The letter, and a similar one sent to White House Chief of Staff Denis R. McDonough August 5, 2014, outlined several specific examples of excessive information control that many journalists view as a form of censorship:
- Officials blocking reporters’ requests to talk to specific staff people.
- Excessive delays in answering interview requests that stretch past reporters’ deadlines.
- Officials conveying information “on background,” refusing to give reporters what should be public information unless they agree not to say who is speaking.
- Federal agencies blackballing reporters who write critically of them.
“We are pleased that the White House agreed to meet with our representatives to hear our concerns and take them directly to the president,” said Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director. “We now will be looking for concrete actions to end practices that impede the flow of information to the public and enhance the transparency needed to make our democracy work.”
SPJ President Paul Fletcher said the one-hour meeting focused on communications policies, the use of public information officers (PIOs) during interviews, anonymous background briefings, prohibitions against staff members speaking to reporters without notifying PIOs and other policies that prevent information from flowing to the public.
He said the goal of the meeting was “to try to bring about a culture change that has pervaded government for several decades. We asked that the president renew his commitment to transparency in government. We further asked for a clear statement that government employees are free to speak without interference to members of the press and public. Current policies, we believe, undermine democracy and public trust in our government. We asked for the Obama administration to reverse that trend.”
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include: The Robertson Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Boston Globe and Boston University.