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US Media Groups Push for More Openness in Government

Seven media organizations and various news outlets are joining forces to promote openness and accountability in government. The group is seeking to counter what it calls a trend toward increased government secrecy since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

A coalition of media organizations, news outlets and public watchdog groups are calling for more openness in government. The Sunshine in Government Initiative seeks to promote accessible, accountable and transparent government at all levels, from the White House to local state houses.

Dave Tomlin, assistant general counsel of the Associated Press, says there is a growing recognition by members of the press and the general public that it has become increasingly difficult to get basic public information.

"And we think that's not healthy in a democracy and we think the constitution gives us a duty, gives all citizens a right, and gives us a duty on behalf of all citizens to exercise our First Amendment rights to push back and to seek wider access for everyone so Americans can see how their government is operating," said Dave Tomlin.

Mr. Tomlin says the problem worsened after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In the name of national security, he says government officials began to classify information that previously had been made public.

"The government was trying to adjust to a threat it still didn't understand very well and naturally they chose to err on the side of caution," he said. "So there were some good reasons why access to information began to narrow even further, but there's a point beyond which it's just not healthy."

The Sunshine in Government Initiative will be spotlighted this week, which has been designated Sunshine Week, by the coalition. Over the next seven days the various groups will lobby officials for increased government openness.

The coalition's efforts are in line with legislation co-sponsored by U.S. Senators John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, and Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont. The two men recently introduced the Open Government Act of 2005, which seeks to speed the release of information sought in freedom of information requests.

Senator Cornyn is a long-time proponent of open government laws, which he calls the cornerstone of American democracy.

"Open government, of course, is one of the most basic requirements of a healthy democracy," said John Cornyn. "It allows taxpayers to see where their money is going; it permits the honest exchange of information that ensures government accountability; and it upholds the ideal that government never rules without the consent of the governed."

By joining with Senator Leahy, Mr. Cornyn said he hopes to demonstrate the push for open government is a bi-partisan effort.

In fact, advocates for more openness in government are quick to note there is always tension between government officials seeking to keep information classified and a public that demands answers.

However, Andy Alexander, chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, says the tension worsened when former Attorney General John Ashcroft came to power.

In a statement on the Bush administration's policy on the Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Ashcroft emphasized the administration's commitment to open government but recognized the importance of protecting sensitive institutional, commercial and personal records. He said the Justice Department would defend government agencies that denied freedom of information requests.

Mr. Alexander says the Ashcroft memorandum changed the basic precept of the Freedom of Information Act.

"Previously, information held by the government had been seen as the public's information unless the government could make an overriding case that it needed to be secret," said Andy Alexander. "The effect of Attorney General Ashcroft's directive was that it changed that basic presumption and it put the onus on citizens to say why this information should be made public. That gave a green light to many people, many FOIA officers throughout the government, to quickly deny freedom of information requests and it has just made it much, much more difficult for citizens to get information from their government."

Mr. Alexander notes there is some irony to the Bush administration's tightening of the public's access to government information.

"It's surprising how many countries, especially emerging democracies, are adopting freedom of information laws," he said. "Now in fairness, some of them are poorly enforced or they're window dressing, but the significance of it is that they are moving in that direction while a lot of very legitimate international studies are showing that the Americans are going the other way."

Mr. Alexander says media groups and public watchdogs are prepared for a long battle with the federal government over its new limits on access to government information. But he says he and others are encouraged by Senators Cornyn and Leahy's efforts to pass the first freedom of information law reform in decades.