Reality of transparency less than its promise

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Kudos are due to AP National Writer Martha Mendoza and the team of reporters and correspondents who helped piece together what may be the most comprehensive report ever on freedom of information laws around the world.

Across the globe, there are more people living in countries where citizens supposedly have access rights to government information than do not. But what people are entitled to see under freedom of information laws and what they can easily gain access to are two different realities, the AP report showed.

The level of transparency on paper is great. But because governments do not always follow their own laws, citizens encounter roadblocks, obstacles and outright denials that are not easily reconciled with that promise of transparency in statutes.

The AP team asked about terror-related arrests and detentions, and some related information, in 105 countries and the European Union. In three out of 10 countries, their requests, for information that should have been available, were completely ignored. Only 14 of the countries provided all the information requested within the legally prescribed deadlines.

The groundbreaking and eye-opening report is particularly relevant at a time that President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton are spearheading and promoting the so-called Open Government Partnership, encouraging all governments more open and accountable to their people.

If you wonder about the example the U.S. sets for emerging democracies around the world, you might be disappointed. Many emerging democracies were more responsive, and compliant with FOI laws, than the U.S. was.

"The promise is magnificent—more than 5.3 billion ordinary citizens have the right, on paper, to find out what their government is doing behind closed door," AP's well-written, well-packaged report begins.

For what is believed to the first time in its 150-year history, the AP is allowing the full report, including video, interactive maps and sidebars, to be shared with anyone through the Internet and Facebook links.

That too is a class move, befitting the spirit of openness, and a fine package of journalism. The AP and its journalists should feel proud.

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Kenneth F. Bunting
Executive director, NFOIC