Nieman Foundation at Harvard
The Society of Professional Journalists faces a “dire situation”
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July 1, 2016, 1:18 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Shan Wang   |   July 1, 2016

The Obama administration has long been criticized for being a secretive one, despite promises otherwise.

But on Thursday President Obama signed into law the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, a bill greeted widely as good news for journalists routinely frustrated in their attempts to obtain documents under Freedom of Information Act requests. (The FOIA law, incidentally, turned 50 this year.)

Along with the open records reform, the administration announced in an accompanying fact sheet several other initiatives, including:

— A move towards launching one unified online portal for FOIA requests, covering all agencies (in 2017), building on FOIAonline, which is currently used by 12 agencies. Details around functionality and timeline to come, but:

DOJ will work with OMB, EPA, and other agencies to launch a consolidated FOIA request portal in 2017. This portal will initially provide for centralized submission of requests and will continue to be enhanced to include other features to guide requesters through the FOIA process, improve the public’s ability to locate already posted information, and track requests online, among other functions.

— Establishing a Chief FOIA Officers Council, which will hold its first meeting July 22.

[T]he high-level officials that comprise the Council are charged with working with stakeholders inside and outside of government, including the FOIA Advisory Committee that was created by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in May 2014. [T]he Administration is also announcing new members for the FOIA Advisory Committee’s 2016-2018 term. The Administration is asking these members to look broadly at the challenges that agency FOIA programs will face in light of an ever-increasing volume of electronic records, and chart a course for how FOIA should operate in the future.

— Broadening the “release to one is a release to all” policy. Last July, the administration tested the policy, in which several agencies would proactively post requested records online for public access.

The President is directing the newly established Chief FOIA Officers Council to consider the lessons learned from the DOJ pilot program and work to develop a Federal Government policy establishing a “release to one is a release to all” presumptive standard for Federal agencies when releasing records under FOIA. The Chief FOIA Officers Council will examine issues critical to this policy’s implementation, including assessing the impact on investigative journalism efforts, as well as how best to address technological and resource challenges.

The changes might be a step towards openness, though journalists aren’t letting the administration’s past record slide, rolling their eyes at the language of the White House’s fact sheet, which declared that the “over the past seven and a half years, the Administration has made good on” its promise of a more transparent government:

The changes put forth in the FOIA bill, Jason Leopold wrote for Vice News, “will likely result in a flood of requests for historical documents being filed with dozens of government agencies.”

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