Information access critical

An editorial from The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING, W.Va. — Many newspaper journalists will have no trouble believing allegations Murray Energy Corp. is making in a lawsuit against the federal government. Much the same thing – and worse – happens to us all the time.

As explained in a story on today’s region page, Murray is suing the Department of the Interior and the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement. The company alleges it sought information from the agencies regarding a new rule that will affect coal mines adversely.

Murray contends the two agencies “have completely ignored” its requests for documents.

Without access to both public documents and meetings of public bodies, our form of government is doomed to failure. That seems obvious.

Yet so resistant to the concept are many in government that laws had to be enacted to protect such access. “Freedom of Information Act” laws are included in both state and federal statute books. They have been there for many years.

Among other things, FOI laws stipulate time limits, often 30 days, for agencies to respond to requests for information.

Many bureaucrats and elected officials labor diligently to find ways to get around FOI laws. Sometimes, as we in newspapers have seen, they simply refuse to provide requested records. More often, they drag their feet in providing them.

A popular dodge during recent years has been to charge fees for finding and reproducing documents. When an agency informs someone filing an FOI inquiry it will cost $1 or more a page for the records in question, it can discourage both that requester and others in the future.

So commonly used has the tactic been that earlier this year, West Virginia legislators approved a new limit on processing and copying fees. It should limit charges to what it actually costs to reproduce records.

No doubt, in both state and federal governments, some in the bureaucracy are finding new and different ways to keep the public from obtaining information.

This is National Newspaper Week, an annual observance we in the press use to celebrate our role in defending freedom – and to remind readers of the critical importance of a free, vigorous news media. Secrecy in government through measures such a blocking or rejecting FOI requests is a major threat to that role.

Because we in the press represent you, the public, we fight limits on access to government documents regularly and firmly. It concerns us – and should worry you – that more than two centuries after our nation’s ongoing experiment in liberty was launched, the battle over freedom of information continues.

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