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The New England First Amendment Coalition recently joined 52 journalism and open government groups, calling on President Obama to stop practices in federal agencies that prevent important information from getting to the public.
The organizations sent a letter — drafted by the Society of Professional Journalists — on Aug. 10 urging changes to policies that constrict information flow to the public, including prohibiting journalists from communicating with staff without going through public information offices, requiring government PIOs to vet interview questions and monitoring interviews between journalists and sources.
“President Obama pledged to lead the most transparent administration in history, but we have yet to see this promise fulfilled,” said David Cuillier, chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. “His term may be coming to a close, but it’s not too late to make some real changes in the way officials work with journalists to improve the accuracy and speed in which important information is relayed to the public.
“The United States Freedom of Information Act celebrates its 50th anniversary on July 4, 2016. Now is the perfect time for the President to change the practices of his administration and participate in a public dialogue toward improving the flow of information to the American people,” Cuillier added.
The letter outlines specific examples of excessive information control, considered by many journalists 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.
Never before has such a broad-based coalition of journalism and good-governance organizations spoken out on this issue. The growing number of examples of “mediated access” have not just frustrated journalists but have led to specific cases of important information not reaching the public.
While journalists acknowledge and appreciate the assistance PIOs often provide in helping schedule interviews and putting reporters in touch with the appropriate contacts, for example, many say access is all too often hindered instead of helped.
“These limitations make it more difficult for journalists throughout New England and the country to do their job,” said Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director. “The policies created by the Obama Administration are not only impedeing press access, but they are preventing the public from receiving the news its needs.”
Organizations also signing the letter include the American Society of News Editors, Investigative Reporters & Editors, Online News Association, OpenTheGovernment.org, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Reporters Without Borders, Student Press Law Center, Sunlight Foundation and the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University.
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 Foundation, The Boston Globe and Boston University.