Let’s appreciate America’s open government laws

There is no better time to think about open government and transparency than now, as we are all watching the brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia happening in real time. There is more reporting from the ground on this war than perhaps any previous one, yet in Russia itself, the truth about their country’s actions has been kept from its citizens.

Reporting within Russia is now limited to state media, with all independent groups shut down by the government. And reporting from outside the country is being stymied from being delivered to the Russian people. Some Russian citizens have been hearing about their nation’s actions of war from family members and friends in Ukraine in personal communications, yet have a hard time believing what they’re hearing, given the misinformation they are being fed by their government.

The Russian government has imposed a penalty of prison time for anyone who reports on the Ukraine attack in any language except that accepted by the state. Even so, there have been demonstrations against the war in Russia, with thousands of citizens arrested.

There is no point in painting a rosy picture of the way information is made available in the United States, in that there are still situations in this democracy where it takes more than a simple request to obtain information about many public incidents. Some examples are misconduct by police, for instance, or governmental corruption. Yet U.S. citizens have a different kind of recourse: We can use the power of state and national freedom of information laws to force those who would rather hide information to release it.

Sunshine Week is March 13 to 19, the week when the News Leaders Association and state news associations and media across the country join in the annual nationwide celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community. We need to appreciate what government can do for our communities, yet still hold fast to the idea that government must also be accountable and open to those it serves. Keep that in mind as the nation, and our region, deal with different kinds of threats and find the best ways to mitigate them at the local, regional, state and federal levels of government.

Below are guidelines for understanding and taking action on your right to know.

This Sunshine Week, know your rights to government information with tips from the transparency experts at MuckRock:

1) Know the law: Federal agencies are subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but each state has its own laws (For example, it’s the Freedom of Information Law in New York, and in New Jersey you file an Open Public Records Act request, or OPRA. In Connecticut, it’s the Freedom of Information Act). Look up which rules apply — in some states, for example, legislative records are exempt from disclosure. Cite the correct law in your requests.

2) Keep it specific: FOIA can be used to dig up all sorts of information, but you have to ask for something that exists. Avoid asking questions; instead, request documents or data an agency would likely have that would answer your questions.

3) Work together: Most records officers are happy to discuss requests. There’s also a community of requesters eager to help: Look up your local National Freedom of Information Coalition chapter, browse requests others have filed publicly on MuckRock and other online resources:

• The Reporters Committee Open Government Guide: www.rcfp.org/open-government-guide/

• MuckRock’s state-by-state guides: www.muckrock.com/place/

• NFOIC’s map of state Freedom of Information organizations: www.nfoic.org/organizations/map

• State of Connecticut resources are www.ctfog.org and ctfoicouncil.nfoic.net/ccfoi-news/

• State of New York resource is opengovernment.ny.gov/freedom-information-law

Muckrock info courtesy of www.sunshineweek.org.

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