Posts Tagged FOI
Kate Doyle of the National Security Archive and contributor to the blog, Unredacted, has shared some disturbing news with AW that is sure to upset many archivists and disrupt Guatemalan civil society. The Secretary of Peace, Antonio Arenales Forno stated that by June 29 the government would, “cancel [labor] contracts for which I see no justification and end the functions of an office that I find makes no sense.”
Doyle has worked with files of the Guatemalan National Police Archives in a recent trial against officers who perpetrated violence and government repression against activists during the 36-year internal conflict that ended in 1996. The Peace Archives comprise of documentation that provided material for this trial, inter alia. Specifically, the archives house government files from the civil war. The archives were just conceived in 2008, preceding an access to information law passed the same year. The FOI law was intended to create openness and government transparency. This recent announcement to dismantle the archives is a step back for human rights defenders engaged in truth and reconciliation, open memory, and right-to-know initiatives.
However, in Doyle’s article for Unredacted, the Secretary of Peace defends his decision, admitting that “he was unsure what the government would do with the institution’s extensive digital archives, suggesting they may be transferred to the General Archives of Central America” among other government institutions. The Secretary told the press that the redistribution of the files is part of the broad restructuring of the government.
In cases of transitional governments, the issue of the trustworthiness of stewards or custodians of material documenting human rights violations is crucial from the perspective of the archival community. Trudy Huskamp Peterson, Chair of the ICA Human Rights Working Group, stresses that if the incumbent government archives cannot be trusted, then an intermediary repository, managed by trusted groups or individuals should be created. Currently, the Secretary has not announced any concrete plan toward housing the files to be redistributed making it difficult to assess the impact of the restructuring. Peterson goes further to state:
But if these are government records, they should eventually go back into government hands. Part of the restructuring of a government to prevent the recurrence of conflict and to protect human rights has to be the revitalization and modernization of the governmental archives system. Each country has to have the capacity to manage its court records and military records, records of diplomacy and records of land title. As part of rebuilding government structures after a period of civic trauma, we have to find ways to persuade governments and donors that rebuilding archives is also crucial.*
Other professionals argue that while trust is a strong factor in determining the custody of records documenting wide-scale abuse, the argument should go further to state that is it the trust of survivors and victim’s families that is paramount. By all accounts, the commonly suggested alternative to government custody are grassroots organizations and other NGOs represented by survivors or those directly affected by the crimes.
AP released an investigative article last month on the contradictions of what they term, “right-to-know” laws, or what information professionals usually dub Freedom of Information (FOI) or Access to Information legislation. The news source found that developing democracies with newly established FOI laws are better at fully addressing access to information requests from the public, citing Guatemala and India as cases. European and North American countries however fared less adequately in this regard. US FOIA officials in the Department of Justice attribute their inadequacy to an inability to tackle the challenges that come with the emergence of electronic records. AP suggests that FOI laws founded in developed countries early in the formation of FOI legislation are showing their age.
In developing democracies where FOI laws are in use, the ideal of giving voice to ordinary people by enabling them with the right to know information has been realized. However, the successful execution of these laws is not without its costs. AP shows that in India retributive crimes arise against ordinary citizens who seek answers through the use of right-to-know laws. These individuals normally seek justice in holding accountable corrupt authorities who in turn terrorize them for exercising their right to information.
In light of the harm these laws can engender for those who use them, there is still a long road ahead for developing democracies beyond right-to-know laws. Such transparency laws are not guarantees of open societies that will protect its citizens despite the new powers they offer them…
This past August, Ghana’s ongoing push to pass an information bill has again been delayed. Efforts to implement such a bill have encountered road blocks as there has been a lot of bandying about which government body is structured well enough to execute the functions of the bill.
In principle, the information bill would allow the public domain to access information on finances, business relationships, and individual citizens. According to an article in Daily Guide Ghana, “Democracy advocates uphold right to information laws as necessary ingredients for the promotion of good governance, transparency, and accountability.” This is especially true for a country that is establishing democracy and shows signs of a fast growing economy as Ghana has started oil production last year. The vote passing of the bill would represent another step towards a solid democracy and anti-corruption efforts.
At the heart of any access to information or freedom of information act or law is effective record-keeping within public bodies and private agencies. At the same time, exemption clauses have been drafted primarily to protect the interests of government. Exemptions to the bill, as with any FOI legislation, define the breadth and depth of how much information is actually disclosed. The exemptions in this case have been described by critics are far too wide. This has been another source of contention and delay…
Tunisian migrants in France, homeless and struggling to return to their native Tunisia, stumbled upon thousands of pages of archives from the former ruling party while trying to find shelter. Al-Jazeera English has reported according to its sources that the migrants found two rooms in a building known as a Tunisian cultural center that was filled with photos, correspondence, financial records, lists of party members for the Rally for Constitutional Democracy (RCD) in France, information on Tunisian dissidents, along with files on French political figures and journalists. It is now being said that the building used to belong to Ben Ali’s now disbanded political party, the RCD.
The Tunisian migrants have been forced to scatter under continuing police pressure. After their eviction, the group moved to the Buttes Chaumount Park across the street from the building. There, they faced daily visits from the police. Their case is but one example of how the French government’s approach to the unprecedented influx of migrants has been to turn up the repression, activists say. This is happening despite a 2008 agreement signed between President Nicolas Sarkozy and Ben Ali, under which France agreed to offer assistance to 9,000 Tunisian migrants a year to help them return home.
As for the archive, Paul Da Silva, a French activist who lobbies for freedom of information, says that the documents contain explosive revelations about French ties with the former regime’s leading figures. For lawyers and activists, the document stash in Paris gives them a second chance to comb through the RCD’s activities…
The truth is many US federal agencies lag in fulfilling President Obama’s Day One Openness Pledge. Modeled after the California Sunshine Survey and subsequent state “FOI Audits,” the Archive’s series of Knight Open Government Surveys started in 2002 and use open government laws to test whether or not agencies are obeying those same laws. Recommendations from previous Knight Open Government Surveys led directly to laws and executive orders which have: set explicit customer service guidelines, mandated FOIA backlog reduction, assigned individualized FOIA tracking numbers, forced agencies to report the average number of days needed to process requests, and revealed the (often embarrassing) ages of the oldest pending FOIA requests…
The New York Times reported this weekend that a handful of legislators and government agencies in the U.S. are trying to break the information bottleneck. “All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure,” President Obama wrote in a memorandum about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). But two and a half years after the president’s call for openness, only 49 of 90 federal agencies have reported making concrete changes to their FOIA procedures, according to a recent analysis by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which collects and publishes declassified government documents. Long backlogs of requests for information, along with responses that take a year or more, are common.
The Justice Department has introduced a Web site, foia.gov which shows which agencies last year had the biggest backlogs of FOIA requests (State and Homeland Security) and which had the most full-time FOIA staff members (Defense and Justice). Long delays, however, can render once-timely information irrelevant. And the real causes of the hold-ups may not only be limited staff resources but may also include an agency’s desire to control its public image, says David Sobel, the senior counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for government transparency and consumer digital rights. To tackle the problem, the Senate passed a bill last month, introduced by Mr. Leahy and called the Faster FOIA Act , whose goal is to expedite the way agencies process requests.
The new frontier in government accountability is not faster responses to information requests. It is an era of open data in which government departments put their information online in usable, searchable formats. That would eliminate the need for many people to file individual FOIA requests — and for agencies to undertake the labor-intensive process of answering them…