This toolkit is designed for journalists working in any media – newspapers, radio, and television – as well as bloggers and other information professionals who need to get access to information held by public bodies for their stories.
The toolkit is for journalists making requests in their own country or considering filing a request in another country. It is based on a comparative analysis of the access to information of the 40 countries of the Council of Europe region which have such laws. In many places in the text we have put references where national law or practice deviates from the normal access to information standards. For more detailed information on national law, links are given in Annex B to each of the national access to information laws and in Annex C to the relevant oversight body (Information Commission or Ombudsman) , where they exist, who should be able to provide more information about the national access to information framework.
Isn’t this only for investigative journalists? No, all journalists can make use of the tool of access to information. Investigative journalists often make particularly heavy use of access to information laws and this toolkit will undoubtedly be of help to anyone working on in-depth stories. At the same time, an everyday story about modernization of a local hospital or plans for the village school written following use of your right to public information might be as interesting to your readers as a story about high level political intrigue or the fight against transnational organised crime.
Is this relevant to regional or local government? All government bodies hold information which is of some relevance to the public and – as we will show in the case studies in this toolkit – sometimes the most important stories for members of the public come from what seem at first to be quite simple and obvious questions posed to a local or regional authority.
I work in TV, I need images! Most access to information or freedom of information laws apply to all information “recorded in any form” held by public bodies. That means that the right to information applies to audio visual material as well as to printed material.
I don’t have much time, is this still relevant? One of the biggest concerns that journalists have about access to information laws is the timeframes: having to wait 15 or 20 working days for an answer is an awfully long time when journalist’s deadlines come every day or even every hour. With this toolkit we show how filing requests for information can be easy and fast, and once you have sent off a few requests, you can get on with other work while waiting for an answer. When the information does come, it might turn out to be an unexpectedly good story which was worth the wait.
Why bother? They are not going to answer my questions! It’s surprising what information does get released under access to information laws so it’s often worth a try. And even if you get a refusal or just silence, you can make a story out of that: the government is formally refusing to release information on a particular topic or failing to respond to citizens. Turning refusals into stories is explored more in Section I, Point 13.
If I start filing formal information requests, it will ruin my relationship with the spokesperson! It’s not uncommon, especially in the early years of an access to information law, for government officials to get angry with journalists who start filing formal requests. This problem is considered more in Section I, Point 1 along with some strategies that you can use to get around this problem.
I don’t think my bosses will like it if I start using the law – they might think I am threatening to sue government officials and they will have to pick up the costs. How to change the newsroom culture and its attitude to access to information laws is explored in Section I, Point 2, along with some tips on what you can do in the meantime.
I am a foreign correspondent: can I still file information requests? Yes, in most countries, the right to request information is a right for anyone. You may need to speak the language of the country however, but if you are based there, it’s usually possible to find someone who can help you translate the request (see also next point).
I want to file a request in another country but don’t speak the language. In this case you should turn to the Legal Leaks network (you can find details at www.legalleaks.info) which will help you find a journalist in the relevant country who can translate your request or even file it for you. See Section II, Point 4.
I am interested in getting access to entire databases, is this possible? Increasingly it is possible to get access to entire databases rather than just some information extracted from them. This presents huge potential to journalists who are ready to explore the data they contain. You can read more about recent releases of government databases in Section I, Point 5. Contact the Legal Leaks team to find more about opportunities for training on Computer Assisted Reporting techniques.
I am concerned about the security of my data: If you are collecting data from many sources, including public institutions and other research, the combination of the information can become highly sensitive. Requests to public bodies that are involved in corruption can trigger aggressive and illegal behaviour from officials. Journalists may have their phones tapped, computers hacked, may be followed, or subject to other forms of harassment. Part of this is the risk of being an investigative journalist and the risks should be considered carefully in each country and in each case. Good data security techniques help reduce risks. More information can be found in the complementary data security toolkit from the Tactical Technology Collective: http://security.ngoinabox.org/.
Structure of the Toolkit
The Introduction presents the Legal Leaks Toolkit and aims to answer the first question that journalist reading it may have: is this toolkit relevant for me?
Section I takes you through filing a request, step-by-step, and includes some strategies on how journalists can integrate filing requests for information into their work, whether it be day-to-day reporting or long-term, in depth investigations.
Section II of the toolkit explains the basic stuff you need to know about how to use the right of access to information in countries which have access to information laws. It is based on the analysis of the 40 countries in the Council of Europe region (out of 47 countries) which have access to information laws).
Annex A: Overview of Access to Information Laws around the world
Annex B: European Access to Information Laws – basic data (40 countries)
Annex C: Scope of the Right to Information (26 countries)
Annex D: Appeals and Oversight procedures (40 countries)
Annex E: Time frames (40 countries)