The Associated Press – Report of a Lecture by Kathleen Carroll, Senior Vice President – Executive Editor of the Associated Press
Kathleen Carroll Discusses the Challenges of Getting Public InformationThe Associated Press – March 1st, 2012
Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll today cited AP’s global TEST of transparency laws in describing to a Berlin forum on freedom of expression the challenges of getting public information for the public.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of system governs a nation, that system values and keeps a lot of secrets,” Carroll said at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy’s International Freedom of Expression Forum.
In 2011, Associated Press journalists around the world conducted the first ever TEST of those transparency laws. “We asked the same questions of the European Union and the 105 nations with open records laws,” Carroll said. “And about half of the nations that mandate public disclosure had this answer: ‘It’s none of your business.’ ”
“It’s None of Your BUSINESS : The Challenges of Getting Public Information for the Public”
Kathleen Carroll, The Associated Press;
Institute for Cultural Diplomacy International Freedom of Expression Forum
BERLIN , Germany; March 1, 2012
Why do governments keep so many secrets?
They do, of course, ALL of them. Kingdoms, dictatorships, democracies of every kind, single-party and multi-party governments.
It doesn’t matter what kind of system governs a nation, that system values and keeps a lot of secrets.
To start, let’s concede that some activities — diplomatic negotiations, military strategies — should remain secret, at least for a while.
But that’s a small part of what governments do. The vast majority of government activity should be out in the open and available to the citizens it serves.
More than 100 countries around the world agree.
Those nations have laws that acknowledge their citizens have the right to know what is being done on their behalf.
By the BOOK , that means that more than 5 billion people around the world are free to ask questions of their government and expect clear and speedy answers.
In reality, nearly half of those countries simply ignore their own laws. Citizens who seek information are ignored or, in the worst cases, punished just for asking.
Last year, Associated Press journalists conducted the first ever TEST of those transparency laws.
We asked the same questions of the European UNION and the 105 nations with open records laws.
And about half of the nations that mandate public disclosure had this answer: “It’s none of your BUSINESS .”
What did we ask?
Two simple questions:
- How many people have been arrested on terrorism charges since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States?
- And how many have been convicted?
Sixty-six countries gave us some kind of answer, most not complete. Even with the paltry responses, we could document a dramatic surge in terrorism arrests and convictions _ nearly 120,000 arrests and more than 35,000 convictions.
The actual amount is almost certainly higher.
One third of the convictions _ nearly 13,000 _ came from just two nations, Turkey and China, which are among the countries that HUMAN RIGHTS advocates complain use terrorism laws to crack down on dissenters.
And how do countries define terrorism? It depends. China, for example, arrested more than 7,000 people under a definition that counts terrorism as one of Three Evils, along with separatism and extremism.
So, that’s a bit about what we found. How easy was it to gather those numbers?
Only 14 countries answered in full within their own legal deadline, among them India, Armenia and the Cook Islands.
Another 38 countries answered most questions, at least PROVIDING data, but days, weeks and even months late, including the UK, France, Germany, Canada and the United States.
Belgium and Austria were among those that simply didn’t respond at ALL .
In fact, more than half the countries did not release anything. A third didn’t even acknowledge the request.
Among those who didn’t respond were Pakistan and China, which adopted open information laws in part because there were financial incentives; for China, it was a condition for joining the World TRADE Organization…for Pakistan, it was in return for $1.4 billion in aid from the International Monetary Fund.
Two things to keep in mind.
These laws are not on the BOOKS to serve journalists, but to serve citizens.
And even if a national government is responsive to requests, regional and local officials may not yet be on board with transparency.
In China, for example, one family in an industrial northeastern city tried to use the laws to flush out why local authorities were steamrolling a construction project that threatened the family matriarch’s home.
The got the RECORDS and proved the process was deeply flawed; the home was destroyed anyway.
There are places where the system works WELL . India is one.
India’s information law was passed in 2006 and since then, citizen requests have exploded _ from 24,000 in the first year to more than a million today.
Politicians there describe right to information as a “fundamental HUMAN RIGHT ” and dozens of blogs help people with right to information issues.
A number of requests have uncovered local corruption and unethical behavior, just what information laws are intended to do.
There are still issues. In some cases local officials suspected of corruption simply refuse to answer citizen questions or, in some cases, go after them instead.
Another model law is in Mexico’s.
Requests can be anonymous and ALL responses are made public, usually within a month. The government processes more than 3,000 requests a week and fully answers 85 percent of them.
The U.S. gets about 600,000 requests a year, more than Mexico but less than India.
And a large number of those requests are filed by people researching their family histories, seeking MILITARY RECORDS for ancestors, for example.
There are a number of online resources _ government and private _ to help make the easier.
More such laws are coming; they are under serious consideration in at least 2 dozen countries.
Indeed, the INTERNET has made transparency easier in many cases.
Mexico’s law went into effect in 2003, in the online era.
The U.S. law went into effect in the paper-pushing year of 1966 _ and a Byzantine bureaucracy has grown up in the 46 years since.
Each separate federal agency has an OFFICE to handle requests _ meaning citizens have to know how the system works and where to ask before they ever file a request.
Only half of the requests get a full answer, though rarely within the 20 days that the law requires.
Requests can linger for years and there is no consequence for not answering.
More than 10 years ago, we asked the State Department for information about a now-defunct Greek terror organization. At the latest check last year, a staffer said: “The information was sent to a senior reviewer.”
The U.S. system clearly needs some updating and the Obama administration has gotten a start, setting up an OFFICE to streamline things.
One of Obama’s first acts as president was to change the presumption about the federal law to one of disclosure. In other words, ALL questions about what was going on were expected to yield an answer.
That same administration has stepped up investigation and prosecution of government whistleblowers — employees who have exposed waste or fraud within their agencies.
Obama is not the only politician to have mixed views of transparency.
Prime Minister Tony Blair pushed for a public information law in 2005 and now Britain has a thriving one.
Today, Blair refers to his support of transparency as monumentally stupid, saying in his autobiography “I quake at the imbecility of it.”
Like many officials, Blair’s views on the need for open government changed after he began, WELL , governing.
His view these days is that officials can’t be effective if there is a chance the public might learn about their deliberations.
The public, it seems, must be protected from the ugly BUSINESS of government on their behalf.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III was similarly worried about the downsides of transparency; he has only recently decided to support a proposed Freedom of Information law.
So what exactly are we being protected from? What is so bad about secrets?
Let’s turn the questions on its head. What’s so bad about transparency?
Why NOT tell your citizens what you are doing for them?
Let’s take public safety, a fundamental function of any government and a topic of keen interest to citizens.
And a topic of intense conversation in Japan, where last March a tremendous tsunami damaged and ultimately melted the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant.
The situation was terribly frightening _ tens of millions of Japanese citizens were worried about RADIATION in their food and in their air and they were not getting straight answers from their government.
Documents obtained through Japan’s open information laws show that both the government and the plant’s operators were aware of the tsunami risks WELL before the March 11 tsunami, but were in no hurry to deal with it. They planned a lengthy study of the problem.
A different set of documents from the U.S. nuclear regulatory officials talking with their counterparts in Japan during the crisis spell out the CONFUSION in Tokyo and Washington’s deep mistrust of assurances about what was happening at the plant.
In New York City, the topic of public safety is utterly intertwined with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
City officials who no longer trusted the FBI, the CIA and other federal agencies to protect the city, set up its own anti-terrorism unit and it has since become one of the most aggressive intelligence gathering agencies in the United States.
The unit, set up with CIA help and at least $1 billion from Washington, has been secretly spying on Muslim citizens by infiltrating their mosques, coffee shops, BUSINESSES and clubs. And not just in New York City, but in neighboring states and on university campuses throughout the northeastern U.S.
Almost always without the consent or even knowledge of the local authorities.
And ALL of that activity was a secret until we revealed it beginning last summer. The NYPD first denied the unit even existed and the city council that governs the city wasn’t told, either.
Local Muslim groups have complained about citizens being TARGETED simply because of their faith.
And officials at some of the universities and neighboring cities penetrated by the New York agents are none too happy, either.
It’s true that this kind of police activity is common in many countries around the world. But in the United States, one of the long enshrined values protects citizens from police investigation unless authorities have a legitimate reason to suspect illegal activity.
New York’s mayor and police chief say the unit is acting legally and they strongly defend its activities as VITAL to protecting the city against terrorists. They also imply that critics are not sufficiently worried about the next attack.
Two of the city’s newspapers not only agree, they howl that the AP’s reporting may actually put the city at greater risk.
Both views — strongly held and tartly worded — miss the point.
Taxpayers are funding this unit. This unit was formed to protect those taxpayers. And yet the entire effort was not just secret, the NYPD even denied that it existed.
You can have a healthy discussion about whether or not this kind of intelligence gathering is ultimately helpful or harmful. You can debate the merits of TARGETING a group of people because heinous acts have been committed by others in the name of their shared religion.
But you can only have those discussions if you know about the unit in the first place.
If the government funded activity is, in fact, no longer a secret.