By Gloria Schiavi
For those who don’t know what FOIA is, it is the Freedom of Information Act, the piece of legislation that allows citizens to ask public bodies to provide information on their spending and behaviour.
It is the citizens’ right to know, the implementation of transparency, a funding pillar of open government and a sign of public authorities’ accountability towards taxpayers.
Why does Italy need a new FOIA? Because the current one is patchy, inefficient and often ineffective to such an extent that many journalists rather go down other paths to obtain information that is covered by FOIA. When filing FOIA requests in Italy we often receive no answer, institutions ignore the requests and we bump against a rubber wall, said Guido Romeo at Glocal. The current law says that institutions must answer every requests, even to say they won’t provide information, but the law set no sanction if they don’t.
Anyway, if you get over the rubber wall and get an answer within the legal 30-day window, very often your request gets rejected on the basis of technicalities. Some information are not disclosed for national security or health reasons, and the motivation behind this could be shady. But what the foia4italy campaign really want to scrap is that not everybody can file a FOIA request: this right is only granted to the residents of the area where the institution operates and only if they are directly affected by the investigated issue. That means that not all citizens are allowed to ask, for the sake of public interest, what’s behind public administrators’ decisions and how they spend taxpayers’ money. No accountablity then.
Your right to know is the expression used to support FOIA (see @dirittodisapere in Italy or the book Your right to know by Heather Brooke @newsbrooke). it is a right, legally regulated – in Italy through law nr 241 of year 1990 and decree 33 of year 2013. But everybody seems to agree that we need an update, even the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi who mentioned it in his campaign for premiership. But currently it is a citizens’ initiative that is pushing the law forward: FOIA4ITALY is a campaign supported by journalists and civil society that is bringing a new law proposal to the institutions and is working on the net to gather suggestions to make it the better. It is a participatory process that is still open – but there is not much time left! Comments will close soon.
Participation is crucial, because FOIA will benefit all of us, every citizen and not only journalists.
Where FOIA fails, journalists or activists find strong allies in leaks and whistleblowers. Of course it is up to those who seek the information to decide how to get it. But the question is: if a FOIA exists, why should we allow it to go unused?
Currently 100 countries have a FOIAs and they can be very effective; usually the youngest countries are the most committed. USA and Sweden also have good legislations: in the USA it is driven by the need to limit the government powers, in Sweden to actually grant citizens rights.
To see how the FOIA spreads worldwide, keep an eye on AccessInfo and Centre for Law and Democracy’s RTI Rating that “analyses the quality of the world’s access to information laws”.
What do they know is a useful online resource that could be imported from the UK: a website that gathers past FOIA requests and their results. Besides accessing the information provided, the user can also analyse past requests and copy the text structure, understand the exceptions and motivations that lead to that request being successful of not.
A database of responses, and of requests as well, because filing a request is the first step, only after the real job begins: analysing the data received (when they are useful and in a usable format).