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The Right Honourable William Wragg MP, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee
The Right Honourable Julian Knight MP, Chair, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee
The Right Honourable Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office
The Right Honourable Chloe Smith, Minister for the Cabinet Office
Dunja Mijatovic, Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner
Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression
Elizabeth Denham, UK Information Commissioner
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon; UK Foreign Office
Kanbar Hossein Bor; UK Foreign Office
We are writing to you to raise serious concerns about the difficulties that journalists, researchers and members of the public currently experience when trying to use FOI legislation, across government.
As you know, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 sets standards for openness and transparency from government, and is a critical tool for ensuring that journalists and members of the public can scrutinise the workings of government.
We have, however, become increasingly concerned about the way in which the legislation is being interpreted and implemented. As the new openDemocracy report ‘Art of Darkness’ makes clear, FOI response rates are at the lowest level since the introduction of the Act 20 years ago.
The report also points to increasing evidence of poor practices across government, such as the use of ‘administrative silence’ to stonewall requests.
In addition, it was recently reported that the Cabinet Office is operating a ‘Clearing House’ unit in which FOI responses are centrally coordinated, undermining the applicant-blind principle of the Act. This raises serious questions about whether information requests by journalists and researchers are being treated and managed differently.
The new report also shows that the regulator charged with implementing Freedom of Information legislation – the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – has seen its budget cut by 41 per cent over the last decade while its FOI complaint caseload has increased by 46 per cent in the same period.
We believe that there are now strong grounds for a review of the UK government’s treatment of and policies for dealing with Freedom of Information requests, and would urge the minister to address these concerns. We urge you to take the following steps as a matter of priority:
Open an inquiry into the operation of the Clearing House, which comprehensively investigates whether its operation is GDPR-compliant, whether journalists and other users of the Act are being monitored and/or blacklisted, and whether this is illegal and/or undermines the applicant-blind principle of the Act.
Consider the merits of introducing an ‘administrative silence’ rule whereby a failure to respond to a request within the requisite time period is deemed to be a refusal and can be appealed in full to the ICO.
Recognise the national interest of an independent and fully funded regulator of information rights by considering the ICO’s critical lack of funding, and making the regulator accountable to and funded by parliament.
Despite recommendations from the ICO, the government has also declined to expand the FOI Act to cover public contracts to private firms – and has failed to deliver on its own pledges to increase the proactive publication of contracting data.
Given the recent National Audit Office report’s criticism about the lack of transparency in government Covid contracting, it is high time that this recommendation was followed through – and that further measures as outlined above are taken to protect and strengthen the public’s right to access information.
Mary Fitzgerald, Editor in Chief, openDemocracy
Katharine Viner, Editor in Chief, The Guardian
John Witherow, Editor, The Times
Emma Tucker, Editor, The Sunday Times
Chris Evans, Editor, The Daily Telegraph
Roula Khalaf, Editor, The Financial Times
Alison Phillips, Editor, Daily Mirror
Paul Dacre, Editor-in-Chief, Associated Newspapers, former Editor, Daily Mail
Alan Rusbridger, former Editor in Chief, The Guardian
Lionel Barber, former Editor, Financial Times
Veronica Wadley, Chair of Arts Council London; former Editor, Evening Standard
David Davis MP
Alex Graham, Chair of the Scott Trust
Ian Murray, Executive Director, Society of Editors
Sir Alan Moses, former Chair, IPSO
Anne Lapping CBE, former Deputy Chair, IPSO
Philip Pullman, author
Baroness Janet Whitaker
Baroness Tessa Blackstone
Ruth Smeeth, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship
Daniel Bruce, Chief Executive, Transparency International
Daniel Gorman, Director, English PEN
Menna Elfyn, President of Wales PEN Cymru
Carl MacDougall, President of Scottish PEN
Rebecca Vincent, Director of International Campaigns, Reporters Without Borders
Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary, National Union of Journalists
Sian Jones, President, National Union of Journalists
Jodie Ginsberg, Chief Executive Officer, Internews Europe
John Sauven, Executive Director, Greenpeace
Rachel Oldroyd, Managing Editor, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
Jonathan Heawood, Public Interest News Foundation
Anthony Barnett, Founding Director, Charter 88
Chris Blackhurst, former Editor, The Independent
Suzanna Taverne, Chair, openDemocracy
Philippe Sands QC
George Peretz QC
David Leigh, investigative journalist
Robert Peston, journalist and author
Peter Oborne, journalist and author
Nick Cohen, journalist and author
David Aaronovitch, journalist and author
Michael Crick, journalist and author
Ian Cobain, investigative journalist
Tom Bower, investigative journalist
Aditya Chakrabortty, Senior Economics Commentator, The Guardian
Jason Beattie, Assistant Editor, the Daily Mirror
Rowland Manthorpe, Technology Correspondent, Sky News
Cynthia O’Murchu, Investigative Reporter, Financial Times
Tom Warren, Investigative Reporter, BuzzFeed News
Christopher Hird, Founder and Managing Director, Dartmouth Films
Meirion Jones, Investigations Editor, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
James Ball, Global Editor, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
Oliver Bullough, journalist and author
Henry Porter, journalist and author
Peter Geoghegan, Investigations Editor, openDemocracy
Margot Gibbs, Senior Reporter, Finance Uncovered
Lionel Faull, Chief Reporter, Finance Uncovered
Chris Cook, Contributing editor, Tortoise
Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism, Kingston University
Mark Cridge, Chief Executive, mySociety
Dr Susan Hawley, Executive Director, Spotlight on Corruption
Helen Darbishire, Executive Director, Access Info Europe
Miriam Turner and Hugh Knowles, co-CEOs, Friends of the Earth
Mike Davis, Executive Director, Global Witness
Silkie Carlo, Director, Big Brother Watch
Natalie Fenton, Professor of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London
Dr Lutz Kinkel, the Managing Director of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
Scott Griffen, Deputy Director of International Press Institute
Granville Williams, Editor, Media North
Alison Moore, journalist and editor
Tim Gopsil, Former Editor, Free Press and the Journalist magazine
Dave West, Deputy Editor, Health Services Journal
Dr Sam Raphael, Director, UK Unredacted and University of Westminster
Leigh Baldwin and Marcus Leroux, SourceMaterial
Vicky Cann, Corporate Europe Observatory
Barnaby Pace, Senior Campaigner, Global Witness
Lisa Clark, Scottish PEN Project Manager
Nick Craven, journalist
Caroline Molloy, Editor, openDemocracy UK
Jenna Corderoy, Investigative Reporter, openDemocracy
Jamie Beagent, Partner, Leigh Day
Sean Humber, Partner, Leigh Day
Harminder Bains, Partner, Leigh Day
Thomas Jervis, Partner, Leigh Day
Oliver Holland, Partner, Leigh Day
Merry Varney, Partner, Leigh Day
Daniel Easton, Partner, Leigh Day
Michael Newman, Partner, Leigh Day
Sarah Campbell, Partner, Leigh Day
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship is quoted by Neil Mackay in The Herald as he examines the anti-democratic implications of the Scottish authorities barring of freedom of information during the coronavirus crisis, when transparency from the authorities and accountability is as vital as it ever has been.
“The Index on Censorship said that FoI delays by governments around the world “allow politicians and public bodies to sweep information that should be freely available and subject to wider scrutiny under the carpet of coronavirus. News that is three months old is, very often, no longer news”.”
Read the full article here[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Governments are using the Covid-19 crisis to change freedom of information laws and, unless we are very careful, important stories could get unreported. Since the beginning of the crisis, governments from Brazil to Scotland have made changes to their FOI laws; some of the changes are rooted in pragmatism at this unprecedented time; others may be inspired by more sinister motives.
FOI laws are a vital part of the toolkit of the free media and form a strong pillar that supports the functioning of open societies.
According to a 2019 report by Unesco – published some two and a half centuries after the first such law was introduced in Sweden – 126 countries around the world now have freedom of information laws. These typically allow journalists and the general public the right to request information relating to decisions made by public bodies and insight into administration of those public bodies.
US president Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”
Now in this time of crisis, freedom of information processes are being shut down, denied unless they relate specifically to the crisis or the deadlines for responses are being extended.
When the Covid-19 crisis first erupted, we made a decision to monitor attacks on media freedom. It wasn’t just a random idea; we know that in similar times of crisis, repressive governments often attack the work that journalists do – sometimes the journalists themselves – or introduce new legislation they have wanted to do for some time and now see a time of crisis as an opportunity to do so without proper scrutiny.
Since the start of the crisis, we have been collecting reports on attacks on media freedom through an innovative, interactive map. More than 125 incidents have been reported by our readers, our network of international correspondents, our staff in the UK and our partners at the Justice for Journalists Foundation. Many relate to changes to FOI legislation.
Let us be clear there can be legitimate reasons for amending legislation in times of international crisis. With many public officials forced to work from home, many do not have access to the information they need or the colleagues they need to consult to be able to answer journalists’ requests. Others need more time to be able to put together an informed response.
Yet both restrictions and delays are worrying. They allow politicians and public bodies to sweep information that should be freely available and subject to wider scrutiny under the carpet of coronavirus. News that is three months old is, very often, no longer news.
In its Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill, the Scottish government has agreed temporary changes to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 that extend the deadlines for getting response to information requests from 20 to 60 working days. The initial draft wording sought to allow some agencies to extend this deadline by a further 40 days “where an authority was not able to respond to a request due to the volume and complexity of the information request or the overall number of requests being dealt with by the authority”. However, this was removed during the reading of the bill following concerns raised by the Scottish information commissioner.
The bill was passed unanimously on 1 April and became law on 6 April. As it stands the new regulations remain in force until 30 September 2020 but can be extended twice by a further six months.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has issued a provisional measure which means that the government no longer has to answer freedom of information requests within the usual deadline. Marcelo Träsel of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism says the measure is “dangerous” as it gives scope for discretion in responding to requests.
The decree compelled 70 organisations to sign a statement requesting the government not to make the requested changes, saying “we will only win the pandemic with transparency”.
Romania and El Salvador are among the other countries which have stopped FOI requests or extended deadlines. By contrast, countries such as New Zealand have reocgnised the importance of FOI even in a crisis. The NZ minister of justice Andrew Little tweeted: “The Official Information Act remains important for holding power to account during this extraordinary time.”
FOI law changes are not the only trends we have noticed.
Index’s deputy editor Jemimah Steinfeld has noted how world leaders are ducking questions on coronavirus while editorial assistant Orna Herr has written about how the crisis is providing pretext for Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to increase attacks on the press and Muslims.
If you are a journalist facing unreasonable delays in receiving information from public bodies at this time, do report it to us at bit.ly/reportcorona.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
It has been over a decade since WikiLeaks released its cache of leaked documents and a little under a decade since it was awarded The Economist New Media Award at the 2008 Freedom of Expression Awards. In the following years, the non-profit organisation has published a considerable body of documents, holding to account states, corporations and individuals. Such actions would imply that it remains an apolitical organisation, whose mission is to ensure the defence of free speech and vitiation of censorship, although of late some would dispute its primary function. On the day of this year’s Dutch general election, WikiLeaks made separate Tweets with links to all documents referencing either Prime Minister Mark Rutte or right wing populist Geert Wilders.
Their fight for freedom of expression is often amorphous, which is well demonstrated by two publications from 2009. First, the March release of a website blacklist, proposed by Australia’s then communications minister, Stephen Conroy. Although it had been suggested by the Australian Government that the compulsory firewall would obstruct access to child pornography and sites related to terrorism, it was revealed to have included numerous websites which suggested a veiled political agenda. Second, the September release of an internal report on a toxic incident clean-up in the Ivory Coast by the oil trading company, Trafigura. That draft report was released after Trafigura obtained a super-injunction against The Guardian. Comparing the two, it is clear they share a commonality in combating instances of censorship, but beyond that an underlying characteristic in the material released is hard to find.
Where the organisation has had a focused, profound, and some would say not impartial, impact is on American politics. Three particularly notable moments were the 2010 Iraq and Afghanistan ‘War Logs’ and diplomatic cables associated with Chelsea Manning, the 2016 Democratic National Committee email leak, and the recent CIA Vault 7 release. It is perhaps the second of these that questions WikiLeaks’ apolitical position; in an interview with ITV, Julian Assange stated that he hoped the leaks would harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Certainly, the furore which surrounded Clinton’s use of a private email server in handling sensitive documents and the March 2016 release of her email archive was a boost for the Trump campaign. It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration or affiliated groups will be the subject of a WikiLeaks publication.
Whether one considers WikiLeaks a paragon, a zealot, or Machiavellian, it remains a powerful force against censorship. Although their profile has grown since being awarded The Economist New Media Award, they are still an organisation that appears wholly unconstrained by diplomatic pressures in holding bodies to account, who or whatever the target.
Samuel Rowe is a member of Index on Censorship’s Youth Advisory Board. He is currently a law conversion student at City, University of London, planning on practicing as a public law barrister with a focus in information law.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”85476″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2016/11/awards-2017/”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]
Seventeen years of celebrating the courage and creativity of some of the world’s greatest journalists, artists, campaigners and digital activists
2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1492506268361-b3958523-724a-7″ taxonomies=”273, 8935″][/vc_column][/vc_row]