Monday, March 12, 2007

More about you than about me

For advocates of openness in government, the timing was fortuitous.

On the eve of Sunshine Week, a media-initiated observance to encourage conversation about open government and freedom of information, the Justice Department released a report revealing that FBI agents broke the law by infringing on citizens’ privacy.

Robert Mueller, FBI director, acknowledged that agents improperly obtained phone records and illegally demanded certain confidential data.

Note that these legal breaches involved private citizens. The news media regularly beat the drum for freedom of information and open government — to which many people respond with a yawn or backlash.

Some people like seeing the news media on the short end. After all, it’s the news media that over-reported on Anna Nicole Smith. It’s the news media that — aside from Fox News, of course — are not “fair and balanced.” It’s the snoopy news media that published my OWI or delinquent tax bill or (in the case of local public employees) my annual salary.

So, any time someone can stick it to the news media, good for them. Right?

Clearly, the news media have their faults and critics. What industry or organization does not? As a journalist and citizen, I read, see and hear things in the media that I question.

However, as the saying goes, be careful what you ask for.

Open government and freedom of information — the theme of Sunshine Week — should be more about you, as a citizen, and less about me, a journalist.

Five years ago, when Americans were still stunned by the events of 9/11, Congress enacted sweeping changes in federal law to fight terrorism. Many were written into the USA Patriot Act.

Some of those changes — promoting communication among investigative agencies and combatting money-laundering, for example — made good sense.

Other provisions sparked objections and questions from civil libertarians, journalists and even public librarians. However, those objections were swiftly dismissed as untrusting and even terrorist-friendly. As the recent report indicates, even with greater authority, the FBI exceeded its legal bounds.

If only this were limited to the FBI. All across the country, day in and day out, some (not all) local, state and federal government officials disregard and violate laws regarding public access. (For examples, visit the SunshineWeek Web site.)

Just keep in mind that, when these violations occur, you might be denied — indirectly, through news reports, or directly — information that might be important to you, your family, your business or your neighborhood.
It’s all about you.

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