United States - Freedom of information law changes hailed as significant albeit belated

    MONTREAL, Jan. 7 /CNW Telbec/ - Reporters Without Borders welcomes the
amendments to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that President George W.
Bush signed into law on 31 December, although it regrets that these
amendments, which improve public access to information about federal
government activity, have come so late in an administration that has shown
little respect for this principle.
    "This is unquestionably a major step forward, albeit belated, one that
promotes more transparency and control of the government's activities by its
citizens," the press freedom organisation said. "It also enshrines the US
congress's efforts in the face of a government given to concealment. We should
nonetheless not forget how transparency and freedoms were suppressed after
    Reporters Without Borders added: "The White House and federal government
must now respect the need for more openness on such issues as the Guantanamo
detainees and the CIA's secret prisons, in which secrecy and the suppression
of information have been the rule."
    The amendments to the FOIA, which were approved unanimously by congress,
set up a hotline for requests for information, establish a tracking system for
requests once they have been made and create an office to mediate in disputes.
They also reinforce a requirement that federal agencies meet a 20-day deadline
for responding to requests, facilitate the recovery of legal fees by those
forced to sue to get information and give a broad definition of journalists
(who are allowed access to information free of charge). In short, federal
agencies are required to provide information on request unless it entails a
major national security risk.
    Congress's desire to combat the current's administration's secrecy was
already seen in October, when the House of Representatives passed the "Free
Flow of Information Act," a federal shield law that provides federal
protection for the confidentiality of journalists' sources.
    The amendments to the FOIA come 11 months before a presidential election
and just weeks after it emerged that the CIA destroyed videos of terrorism
suspects being interrogated (some of them in Guantanamo) that had been
requested as evidence in court. The destruction of the videos has been the
subject of a criminal investigation since 2 January.

For further information:

For further information: Emily Jacquard, secretary general, Reporters
Without Borders Canada, (514) 521-4111, Cell: (514) 258-4208, Fax: (514)
521-7771, rsfcanada@rsf.org

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