The state of FOI in Europe

Conversations with Data: #95

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Welcome to the latest Conversations with Data newsletter!

The latest episode explores the state of freedom of information in Europe with a panel of journalists talking about their first-hand experience in the UK, Ireland and Romania.

We sat down with Jenna Corderoy, an investigative reporter at openDemocracy; Ken Foxe, a journalist and co-director of Right to Know; and Attila Biro, co-founder of Context Investigative Reporting Project Romania.

We examine the different challenges and experiences of requesting FOI and provide some advice for journalists new to the field.

Listen to the podcast on Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. Alternatively, read the edited Q&A with the panel below.

What we asked

Jenna, talk to us about your role at openDemocracy.

Jenna: I'm a reporter with openDemocracy's investigations team. openDemocracy is an independent global media organisation. We're known for reporting on money and influence in UK politics, but we also specialise in reporting about LGBTQ rights, the environment and policing. I specialise in getting documents under freedom of information laws and often appeal against refusals. There'll be a few times when I go to court and argue my case in front of a judge. But I also report on the state of freedom of information in the UK and how it is regularly undermined.

What do you think about the state of freedom of information in the UK?

Jenna: The fate of freedom of information in the UK has worried me for quite a long time now. In fact, at openDemocracy, we published two major reports detailing the problems we are currently facing. We found that less and less freedom of information requests are being granted in full by central government departments and that government departments frequently ignore or don't respond to them in a timely manner.

The Information Commissioner's Office, the information regulator here in the UK, is overworked and underfunded. That means when you want to make a complaint about a certain government department, when they have a public authority, you complain to the information commissioner's office, but they take a very, very long time to process these complaints. When you've got lengthy delays and public authorities refusing to provide information despite the public interest in disclosure being so significant and powerful, it undermines this fundamental right.

In your experience, how has the UK's FOI situation changed over the years?

Jenna: When I got into journalism about ten years ago, I thought freedom of information was fantastic. I would send a freedom of information request, and on the whole, I would be very, very successful in obtaining the information I wanted. I sought things like emails and communications within the government. It tended to be on time. But over the years, it has become significantly worse, and I still am quite unsure why that's the case. It's not just me that's complaining. It's lots of other people, too. It's a very serious problem here in the UK right now.

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Ken, tell us about your role at Right To Know in Ireland.

Ken: I'm a freelance reporter, and I've worked as a journalist for over 20 years. I work with Right To Know, which campaigns for greater transparency in public life in Ireland. About 10-15 years ago, I began to specialise in the use of FOI and access to information in Ireland.

How does Ireland's FOI compare to the UK's?

Ken: I follow openDemocracy's work quite closely on access to information, and it seems the delays and difficulties around filing FOI requests in the UK aren't replicated in Ireland. I've had some experience making FOI requests in the UK, and I find it much more difficult. One of the annoying things about FOI is that sometimes when you're an expert in your own country, it doesn't necessarily translate into accessing records in another jurisdiction, as there can be subtle differences in how it works. So I suppose, in general, the picture isn't as bleak in Ireland, and we have a review of our FOI act underway.

Ireland has the exact FOI request timelines as the UK. It's 20 working days to deal with the request, but the ability to continually extend that -- as experienced in the UK -- doesn't happen here. You only have one chance to extend in Ireland, and if you don't answer, you can move on to the next stage, which is an internal review. They only have three weeks to deal with that, and if they don't deal with that in time, you can go straight to our Information Commissioner. So it is easier to push the process along in Ireland than in the UK.


What other FOI differences exist between Ireland and the UK?

Ken: One of the aspects of Irish FOI that makes it a little bit different to the UK is that you're able to ask questions. So it makes it a little bit easier for a new requester in the UK, whereas your request has to be for existing records in Ireland. It doesn't sound like a big difference, but it is because sometimes you might have a question on a record that might not yet exist that answers that question.

Another aspect that I suppose is challenging in Ireland is that we have a lot of public bodies that have only partial inclusion in our FOI. So again, in the UK, you can access a lot of information from the police, but in Ireland, you can only access information relating to finance, procurement and human resources. You can't get anything whatsoever related to operational policing in Ireland.

What are the challenges Irish journalists face with FOI?

Ken: One of the challenges is an inconsistency in decision-making. For instance, you could have one public body you deal with who does a terrific job by taking the requests very seriously. They phone you up and help you find the information. Or you can have the opposite experience where a public body literally will do everything in its power to make it difficult for you by invoking rarely used sections of the FOI act. While I have experience dealing with these tactics, I worry that members of the public don't know how to navigate this behaviour.

How much are Irish journalists using FOI in their reporting?

Ken: FOI in Ireland has probably become underused. Even ten years ago, I think a lot more journalists used it than they do now. That is not necessarily the fault of FOI. It's more about how newsrooms have changed and how much discretionary time reporters have. You need to be able to dedicate about five hours a week to it, even to keep up with the bureaucracy and the paperwork of it. I feel that Ireland journalists aren't being given that time anymore. It means many evergreen requests are repeatedly made for the same thing that works every year. And though it is interesting, it's certainly not bringing a huge degree of transparency to public life here in Ireland.

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Tell us about your role at Context in Romania.

Attila: I'm an investigative reporter with Context. I've been a journalist working with FOI since 2004. We are a new investigative platform established a few months ago focusing on corruption and money laundering at the national and cross-border levels. We are part of the international network of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, one of the world's biggest investigative journalism networks.

What does the FOI situation look like in Romania?

Attila: Romania has a nicely drafted Freedom of Information Act that came into effect in 2001. However, the reality of working with FOI in the country is a different story. Politicians and their minions have managed to curtail the law. They use secondary laws to ignore or block our FOI requests. There is no ombudsman for FOI in Romania. However, you can go to court, which is what we have done after the government rejected an information request regarding hospital data in Romania.

The law says Romania has 10 to 30 working days to fulfil your request. The provision usually takes five days to reject, but you normally hear back in 30 days. There is no punishment for public institutions if they don't reply to an FOI. We have noticed public institutions in Romania and Brussels use data protection legislation to weaponise it against journalists and block them from accessing data about EU funds and expenditures. They have taken a good piece of legislation that should protect people and instead are using it against them.

At Context, how do you approach FOI requests?

Attila: Usually, we request data for stories where we already have leads. However, government officials sometimes send us badly scanned printed-out Excel sheets where not all the information is shown. When that happens, that tells me I am on to a story because it seems they are trying to hide something.

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What advice do you have for journalists new to FOI?

Jenna: My advice for journalists who are about to embark on such a project is to Google to see whether the information that you want is already out there. I would also say the more research you do before submitting a request, the more informed you become. This research can help you when drafting your FOI request.

If you send the same request to many institutions like universities here in the UK, you've got to get organised. Use a spreadsheet, and list when you sent your request and when you expect the results. Remember that you must constantly chase down requests when you don't get an answer within 20 working days. You can also complain to the information commissioner in the UK if you haven't heard back.

Ken: in Ireland, all public bodies are obligated to publish a list of all the FOI requests they receive every three months. I recommend journalists look at what people have previously requested. This will help you develop ideas and get into FOI's mindset. I would also recommend reading the FOI act in your country. Journalists need to familiarise themselves with the law and understand what records you can get and what you can't.

Attila: To combat the negative responses to your FOI request from the government, make sure you reference relevant legislation or previous answers from successfully submitted requests. I try to make it hard for the public official to refuse me the information by referencing these details. I would suggest you do your research and find out what they did in the past before drafting your FOI request.

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