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Whistleblowers and journalism are essential for democracy

SPJ FOI Chair gives a preview of “The Whistleblower Project: A collaboration between the Society of Professional Journalists and the Government Accountability Project”


Ever since the Trump administration took office last year, reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico and many other news organizations have been reporting on the inner workings of the federal government. Citing anonymous and named government sources, they report on political turmoil within the White House, new policy decisions, executive orders, possible civil rights violations, scientific censorship and classified information surrounding Russia’s influence over the 2016 election.

Journalists have a long history of working with their sources to reveal essential public information and informing the citizenry. A free press is one of the cornerstones of American democracy, after all. But when government officials attack reporters or their sources and try to control the exposure of the truth, power is taken away from the citizens and that pillar of democracy crumbles.

In August, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Department of Justice’s efforts to crack down on intelligence officers who reveal classified information to the public and the media organizations that report it. This included the possibility of implementing new subpoena powers, forcing journalists to give up their sources or risk facing jail time.

“We are taking a stand. This culture of leaking must stop,” Sessions said. “I have this warning for would-be leakers: Don’t do it.”

Perhaps the policy to crack down on leakers and whistleblowers came from his boss, President Donald Trump, who has a history of raging on Twitter against government “leakers” who paint him and his administration in an unflattering light. Or perhaps it’s a continuance of the previous administration led by former President Barack Obama, which arrested eight of the 13 people who have ever been prosecuted for leaking secrets under the Espionage Act, according to The Washington Post.

There is a difference between whistleblowers and leakers — two terms that are often used interchangeably as a way of discrediting the source of potentially-damning information. Leakers release information about the inner workings of the government agency or corporation they work for, often for political gain, to curry favor, or to test policies; Whistleblowers are workers who release information that shows serious wrongdoing, mismanagement, waste or other abuses of public trust.

Both are essential for a democracy with an informed citizenry.

While whistleblowers are, in most cases, protected by law from retaliation, they are often risking their lives and careers by releasing such information. Blowing the whistle takes courage and conviction and is one of the purest examples of putting your country before yourself.

That’s why the Society of Professional Journalists and the Government Accountability Project have teamed up with several other whistleblowing and media organizations to inform journalists on how they can safely work with whistleblowers, and have created a comprehensive case for why those brave workers who risk everything should be praised and better protected.

Next week, SPJ and GAP are launching “The Whistleblower Project,” where people can read and listen to stories of whistleblowers who have helped shed light on corruption, government waste and corruption. People will also be able to learn about the reporters who worked with them and how these essential public servants are currently protected by a patchwork of laws, but ultimately are still vulnerable to reprisal.

The goal of The Whistleblower Project is to spread awareness and ensure that whistleblowers and the journalists who work with them are protected and supported.

Washington’s governor needs to use veto pen to make stand for transparency

As Yogi Berra would say, it’s déjà vu all over again.

A legislature has rushed through a bill curtailing the state’s public records act, waiving rules to minimize public comment and present the governor with a bill that has enough votes to override any veto, and members of the public are as mad as hell.

While that sounds like Utah’s infamous House Bill 477, which gutted the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act, this scenario actually played out in Washington state last week.

In response to a Thurston County Superior Court judge’s ruling that lawmakers are subject to the state’s Public Records Act, Senate Bill 6617 was introduced to nullify it.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, the bill declares that the Legislature is not subject to the public records law.

While the bill does make some records public, such as lawmakers’ calendars and final actions in disciplinary procedures, it takes giant leaps backwards in transparency.

The bill renders the court battle over lawmakers’ records moot because it is retroactive back to 1889 when Washington became a state.

But wait, that’s not all.

If someone challenges a record denial by either the Senate Secretary or the Clerk of the House, the appeal can only be heard by one of two legislative committees, and the committee’s ruling is final and cannot be challenged in court.

The bill takes effect as soon as it becomes law. That negates any attempt to overturn it at the ballot box.

If you think the bill is bad, the way it was passed in the Legislature was worse.

The bill was introduced late in the session, on Feb, 21, and was put up for a Senate vote without going through the usual committee process.

Lawmakers did agree to have a “work session” where stakeholders such as the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington could weigh in against the bill, but that was not enough to stop this legislative juggernaut.

The bill passed 41-7 in the Senate on Feb. 23, and minutes later the House of Representatives voted 83-14 in favor of it.

Lawmakers defended the bill with pleas that they were protecting their constituents from having their tales of personal woes and problems exposed by prying reporters who request lawmakers email and correspondence.

Another argument that was brought up was that responding to public records requests would be too onerous for lawmakers and their support staff.

Plus, they argued that the state’s judicial branch is exempt from the Public Records Act, so why shouldn’t they.

But as Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, and Allied Daily Newspapers’ Executive Director Rowland Thompson point out, the judiciary’s exemption was worked out over a course of years, with open-government advocates at the table. And the system they came up with provides an independent review of any record denial.

The bill is now before Gov. Jay Inslee, who has until Thursday to either sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

And Inslee’s getting a lot of calls to veto the bill. The Seattle Times reviewed more than 540 constituent emails it requested from Inslee’s office, and found that there were none in support of the bill. And several papers in the state, including the Times, the Yakima Herald-Republic, the Bellingham Herald and others, ran front-page editorials demanding Inslee veto the bill.

While Inslee is supportive of transparency in government, he has hinted that vetoing a bill supported by a veto-proof majority, would be futile.

No, it wouldn’t. It could stop this bill in its tracks, or at least make legislators take full responsibility for thumbing their noses at the public’s right to know.

Sure, the bill’s got more than enough votes to overturn a veto, but when the moment of truth comes, some lawmakers may question the justice of their cause when faced with overriding a veto that the public fully supports in an election year. Politicians know better than most people that discretion is the better part of valor.

And even if lawmakers stick to their guns and override the veto, Inslee will have shown the people that he values transparency, even when it is not convenient. And by doing so, he would force the Legislature to take full ownership of the bill. They were the ones who approved it, and they were the ones who made it become law, even though the public made it perfectly clear that they value transparency, just as they did when they enacted the Public Records Act through a referendum in the 1970s.

Donald W. Meyers, a reporter/multimedia journalist at the Yakima (Wash.) Herald-Republic, is a member of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee and is SPJ’s Region 10 Director

When Working with Whistleblowers Same Ethical Journalism Principles Apply

Government Accountability Project released a guide for journalists detailing best practices for working with whistleblowers.

“The power of whistleblowers to hold institutions and leaders accountable very often depends on the critical work of journalists, who verify whistleblowers’ disclosures and then bring them to the public,” a recently released guide by the Government Accountability Project reads.

The guide is a short read and focuses on what a whistleblower is, the laws that exist pertaining to them and tips when working on a story involving a whistleblower.

“Working with employee sources who are uniquely credible is a powerful way to access information, especially in this administration, which is clamping down on what is made publicly available,” Dana Gold, Director of Education for GAP said.

So, what is a whistleblower?

According to the guide, the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) defines a whistleblower as an employee who discloses information, internally or externally, they believe shows a violation of law, rule or regulation, gross mismanagement or waste of funds, abuse of power, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.

The WPA is the primary law that protects non-intelligence federal employees. When it comes to classified information or any information barred by statute from release, the WPA only protects disclosures made to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, agency Inspector General or any employee designated by an agency chief to receive them.

Gold said she wanted journalists to know whistleblowing when the person isn’t in the national security space or handling classified information, is not a crime. According to the guide, only a small percentage of whistleblowers work in the intelligence community.

“The narrative that this kind of behavior is illegal is an attempt to chill this behavior,” she said. “You have a right to disclose this information.”

Information highlighted in the 36-page guide includes:

  • More than 95% of whistleblowers try to solve the problem internally first, often only seeking external support after the problem fails to be addressed.
  • No single law protects employees who disclose evidence of serious wrongdoing, instead, there are more than 60 federal statutes, in addition to state and local laws.
  • Asking a source directly for classified documents can put a journalist at risk of prosecution. In the guide, GAP suggests journalists be careful even describing the information and how you obtained it.

Other tips in the guide focus on how you can work better with a whistleblower. The tips, which focus on trust, honesty, and transparency, are all core elements of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

Gold said the main message she wanted to reach journalists is that her organization, GAP, and others are available as a resource for the journalist and the whistleblower.

“We wanted to find a way to protect and empower both the journalist and the employees,” she said. “Journalists are the front line of the most important part of our democracy.”

To contact GAP call their main phone number 202-457-0034. The call will be forwarded to the correct person. Click here to read the complete guide [PDF].

Lynn Walsh is a freelance journalist, creating content focused on government accountability, public access to information and freedom of expression issues. She’s also helping to rebuild trust between newsrooms and the public through the Trusting News Project. Follow her on Twitter and send her an email to collaborate on a possible project or hire her.

Update: One FOIA Request Another Day

This post from guest writer Christopher Collins is an update on his efforts, which we first blogged about as part of Sunshine Week.

After six months of filing one Freedom of Information Act request each weekday, I’ve learned a lot — though not necessarily from the records I asked for.

In January, I launched One Freedom of Information Request a Day (1FOIRaDay), an open records project that aims to test the federal government’s compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. Since then, through a crash course in the FOIA process, I’ve gotten a pretty good idea of how the system works (or doesn’t work).

Some of the most important things I’ve learned are when to ask for help, where to look for resources and how to cultivate a zen-like calm in the face of FOIA-borne frustration.

I’ve learned to appreciate the FOIA officers that work to produce records instead of consigning requests to a dank dungeon of bureaucracy, as some of their colleagues do. I’ve also learned to assume the envelope mailed to me from a government agency does not contain the records I requested — rather, it’s another ransom letter saying I’d better clarify my request, or else. But before we dive into the nitty gritty, a few stats on the project so far:

  • Requests filed from Jan. 9, 2017, to June 8, 2017: 108
  • Number of requests that were fully granted: 10 (9.2 percent)
  • Number of requests that were partially granted: 11 (10.1 percent)
  • Number of requests that were denied: 7 (6.48 percent)
  • Number of requests in which the agency did not hold the records sought: 14 (12.9 percent)
  • Number of requests in which records were already publicly available: 3 (2.7 percent)
  • Number of requests in which exorbitant fees prevented access to records: 1 (0.92 percent)
  • Number of requests that have reached their logical conclusions: 46 (42.59 percent)
  • Number of outstanding requests in which the government has violated statutory response times: 46 (42.59 percent)
  • Number of agencies receiving requests: 53

As you can see, I haven’t had much success in freeing information from the government in a timely fashion. A measly 19 percent of requests have resulted in either a full grant or partial grant, and more troubling, a large minority (43 percent) appear to be at a standstill. In those instances, agencies have surpassed the 20-day statutory period in which they are required to respond to requests — many of them claiming the requests present “unusual circumstances” or are too broad.

In one case, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wrote to say a May. 9 request asking for emails from five of its administrators to two members of the House Committee on Financial Services was too broad, despite the request specifying the names of the administrators, the lawmakers and the five-month timeframe for which records were being sought. In another case, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a Jan. 19 request for data related to Legionella bacteria exposure was too broad. Even after agreeing to limit the request, I still haven’t received the records.

The Department of Justice still hasn’t provided records pursuant to a Jan. 31 request for former Attorney General Sally Yates’ emails regarding President Trump’s travel ban, even though the agency placed the request in its “simple” processing track. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has yet to produce a single page of records in connection to weekly requests I began sending on Feb. 13 for animal welfare investigations. I still haven’t gotten records from a Feb. 9 request for 12 Peace Corps Inspector General sexual assault and sexual harassment investigations.

If there’s any recourse for this type of foot-dragging, I’m not sure what it is.

On the other hand, the records I have been able to secure are pretty cool. One dataset provided by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service shows the assignment location of every FSIS employee, who usually are stationed at meatpacking facilities or similar businesses. This collection of 576 pages of CDC emails gives valuable insight into the agency’s actions before and after it unceremoniously cancelled its climate summit scheduled to take place in February. This Dept. of Energy document shows the items that have been removed from its website post-Obama.

Six months in, I’ve asked for help (like, a lot). I’d be remiss in failing to mention Syracuse University’s FOI-L listserv, which is indispensable if you’re looking for open records advice. The Government Attic can help requesters cook up new ideas for requests; The Memory Hole 2 and The Black Vault have this FOIA thing figured out; the National Security Archive is a great resource; The Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives (OGIS), which offers FOIA mediation services, does what it can to help requesters.

Perhaps I’ll have more luck in the second half of this project than in the first. Perhaps one of these days, I’ll open the mailbox to find the government has sent records instead of another obstructionist FOIA response. A man can dream.

Until then, I’ll keep filing.

You can follow the 1FOIRaDay project on Twitter or on my website. In the interest of openness, I’m now allowing public access to the Google spreadsheet I use to track requests and notate responses. The key begins at row 319. Feedback, suggestions and ideas are welcome at collinsreports@gmail.com, and if you’d like to donate to this project, you may do so here.


Christopher Collins is an independent, investigative journalist based in Abilene, Texas. His work has appeared in USA TODAY and Military Times and has been carried by The Associated Press, various daily newspapers and online news publications.

When POTUS wants journalism to be a crime, he tweets

 

Once again, President Trump has riled up journalists around the US with one of his question/statements:

Let’s unpack this for a (bittersweet) good time.

First off, POTUS would be wise to get grammatically sharper in his prose. After all, if the New York Times “disgraced the media world,” that means it did something that put the rest of the media world to shame. You know, if X disgraces Y (insert football teams you know and I don’t), then X ain’t disgraced—Y is. That’s what his words mean, anyway.

Second, did the Times get him wrong for two years that were “solid” for him, or was the wrongness what was solid? When you’re slippery with words, it’s hard to tell what’s hard ground. Maybe “gotten me solidly wrong” for two years might’ve been a better way to say that.

But that’s just nitpicky (and childish) and everyone understood what Trump meant when he asked (as he does), “Change libel laws?”

Who should change them, how they should change, why they should change is all conveniently absent in this tweet. But details aren’t the point here. Details are just details, anyway. This isn’t a real question or a real concern or even a real thought. It’s an attack on the freedom of the press—freedom from a tyrannical tweeter set on turning the people against the press. But let’s not take any of this too seriously. It’s just a question, after all.

I have colleagues who’re much more well versed in press freedom than I am, so I asked them their thoughts on this tweet.

Said Dave Cuillier, who’s the director of the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism:

Too bad for Trump he can’t change libel law. He can wish it to happen, but until he controls the courts it ain’t in his wheelhouse.

Said Roy Gutterman, who’s the director of Syracuse University’s Tully Center for Free Speech:

A difference of opinion on news or the quality of news does not suffice for a libel lawsuit.  This is why we have the First Amendment.

Right, Trump isn’t going to be flipping over hardened American Constitutional law anytime soon, but he can definitely dig into the trench of the misunderstood POTUS, the one the media just won’t stop lying about. But again: not the point. To pro-Trump Twitter users, this might signify another call to arms against the “enemy of the American People”.

For a taste of what they think, I turn to a fun new subreddit I found recently: r/asktrumpsupporters, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Here are top comments from the post asking, regarding Trump’s tweet: “Are you worried about the first amendment?”

Consequences is such a good word to end that comment with, because at the bar over a beer I’d simply ask, aren’t you worried about the consequences of a silenced, criminalized media? Cheers!

There’s always the possibility, of course, that Trump wants to loosen libel laws—the word change can go either way, right?

Here’s SPJ on the tweet, closing the loop:

Bottom line: Trump can’t change libel law. And if he was able to and did: Changing libel laws won’t stop any press from committing acts of journalism because libel is libel and journalism is truth.

 

 

One FOIA Request a Day

This post from guest writer Christopher Collins is part of Sunshine Week.
In the United States, a person ought to be able to obtain information from the federal government cheaply and quickly. It’s only fair — using our tax money, the government generates mountains of paper and electronic documents, so we should be able to get those records when we want them.

But it’s not always easy. The Freedom of Information Act, a law passed in 1966 that codifies our right to obtain government documents, isn’t perfect. And agency officials who are charged with ensuring compliance of the act aren’t perfect either. Reporters, researchers and other members of the public have shared horror stories aplenty regarding outrageous fees, years-long delays and outright refusals in response to requests for documents.

It’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out.

After leaving the daily newspaper business to pursue independent reporting this year, I decided to put FOIA to the test by filing one request each weekday and charting the government’s responses. I also wanted to make all information obtained through the project available to the public for free, even if it costs me a scoop.     

The project, titled One Freedom of Information Request a Day, was launched Jan. 9. So far, requests have been sent to agencies including the USDA, the EPA, the CDC, the Departments of Justice, Education and Homeland Security, the U.S. Trade Representative, the Pentagon and various branches of the military. A little more than two months in, I’ve seen signs of promise. But moreover, I’ve seen signs of trouble, such as:

  • Poor data management leading to exorbitant fees

  • Refusal of emailed requests; redirecting requests to a separate online FOIA portal

  • Coercive tactics to dissuade pursuit of FOIA

In the project’s most frustrating interaction yet, the Federal Aviation Administration estimated that complying with a request for airspace hazard notifications would cost $461,300 and would take five years to complete. The notifications, which are sent by the FAA to project developers when a proposed structure is judged to impede air traffic, are an important part of the work the FAA does. When I asked why access to the dataset is so expensive, an agency FOIA officer said that the requested documents are commingled with other, confidential documents, which means the records I want would have to be individually downloaded and saved.

Strangely, the FAA offered to set me up with its database contractor, who said it could supply me with the requested documents for the low, low price of $4,275. I declined.

Some agencies — most notably the FBI — have inexplicably stopped accepting emailed requests, insisting instead that requests be submitted via physical mail or fax. The agency did not announce this abrupt change in its FOIA policy until it was made public by a requester.

I had a similar experience when requesting documents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection regarding its detainment of people from Muslim-majority countries this year. The request was emailed to the agency’s general FOIA inbox, but an automated message sent later said the account was no longer accepting requests. Instead, I would need to submit the request through FOIAonline, it said. I asked a Department of Homeland Security official about this, and he said the change had occurred “a while ago.” A subsequent probe by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press found the change was never publicly announced.

Additionally, an emailed request seeking emails sent from the White House to the General Services Administration was similarly refused, citing the FOIAonline filing system.

I’m trying not to prejudge FOIAonline, which acts as the records clearinghouse for select federal agencies. Perhaps a centralized system for receiving requests and sending responses will make it easier to get records. But by its very nature, the system takes away some level of control requesters once had over their own requests and gives it back to the government.

During the course of this project, other agencies have sought to have FOIA requests droppedor delayed. After the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service was caught in a scandal by ordering its scientists to stop speaking to the public this year, I filed a request for an administrator’s emails. In short order, an agency FOIA officer called and said the USDA would give me a few responsive documents but would like to place the request on hold until I discussed the matter with a spokesman. I declined, finding later that the agency was only releasing documents that had already been leaked or otherwise released to the public.

In another encounter, the EPA implied that because some records responsive to a request I filed for pesticide exposure assessments were already publicly available, it might be in my best interest to drop the request or sharply narrow it. Agency officials on a conference call were incredulous when I insisted that they produce a cost estimate for providing the records, which is provided for under FOIA.

But the project hasn’t been all roadblocks and redirection — so far, I’ve obtained documents from the USDA, U.S. Navy and the U.S. Postal Service. And though I’m confident I’ll have more curveballs thrown my way, hopefully this will be a worthwhile exercise in democracy. Let me know if you have any ideas for future requests or ideas on how to make this project better. I want your input! Send a message to collinsreports@gmail.com or DM me on Twitter @collins_reports.


Christopher Collins is an independent, investigative journalist based in Abilene, Texas. His work has appeared in USA TODAY and Military Times and has been carried by The Associated Press, various daily newspapers and online news publications.

PIO Censorship in the Era of Trump

President Trump has already labeled major press outlets the “fake news media” and the “enemy of the people.” His administration has blocked major news outlets from a briefing because it didn’t like what they published.

With that in mind, the public should understand “censorship by PIO” at the federal level: For years, in many federal agencies, staff members have been prohibited from communicating with any journalist without notifying the authorities, usually the public information officers. And they often are unable to talk without PIO guards actively monitoring them.

Now, conversations will be approved or blocked by people appointed by the Trump Administration, some of them political operatives.

The information about the “administrative state” that impacts our lives constantly is under these controls. They also cover much of the data through which we understand our world and our lives.

In January, according to the Washington Post: “Trump called the government’s job numbers ‘phony.’ What happens now that he is in charge of them?”

Some of us may feel less comfortable with Trump people controlling this information flow. But actually a surge in these controls has been building in the federal government and through the U.S. culture for two decades or more.

In many entities, public and private, federal, state, and local those in power decree that no one will talk to journalists without notifying the PIO. Congressional offices even have the restrictions.

They are convenient for bosses. Under that oversight staff people are unlikely to talk about all the stuff that’s always there, outside of the official story.

Beyond that, PIOs often monitor the conversations and tell staff people what they may or may not discuss. Frequently agencies and offices delay contacts or block them altogether. An article on the Association of Health Care Journalists website, advising journalists about dealing with the Department of Health and Human Services, says, “Reporters rarely get to interview administration officials…”

Remember, those HHS people journalists can’t talk to are at the hub of information flow on what works and doesn’t with Obamacare, Medicare, and Medicaid. Or they know whether there are other perspectives on the numbers the agency publishes. Not to speak of the understanding about food and drugs, infectious disease, and medical and health policy research. Many of them could quickly stun us with the education they could give, if they were not gagged.

Another fact that gives pause is these restraints are just for journalists. There are no special rules or offices to stop staff people from having fluid communication with lobbyists, special interest groups, contractors, people with a lot of money, etc.

Fifty-three journalism and open government groups wrote to President Obama asking him to lift the mandate that PIOs be notified of contacts and the related restrictions in federal agencies. We met with people in the White House in 2015 to leave that message for the President. A year ago we pleaded in an editorial that Obama not leave these constraints in place, given the authoritarian rhetoric on the campaign trail and the fact no one can know how these controls will be used in one year or 20 years.

We wonder how former Obama officials feel now about their medications, given that FDA officials can’t talk without Trump controls.

But is it ever even rational to just believe staff people who are under such coercion?

Some journalists –- given our proclivity for believing we always get the story — profess to not be concerned about the PIO controls, saying people on the inside will leak. But do we have any sense of how often that happens? Do we have a 75-percent perspective on an entire agency, or a 2-percent? Nobody leaked when EPA staff people knew that kids in Flint were drinking lead in water or when CDC had sloppy practices in handling bad bugs.

Meantime, we have much more to worry about than just the gagged feds. In surveys sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, over half of political and general assignment reporters around the country said their interviews must be approved at least most of the time. Seventy-eight percent said the public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers imposed on reporting and 73 percent said the controls are getting tighter.

Education and science reporters cited similar controls.

Perhaps most chillingly, 56 percent of police reporters said they can never or rarely interview police officers without involving a PIO.

Almost 80 percent of police PIOs said they felt it was necessary to supervise or otherwise monitor interviews with police officers. Asked why, some PIOs said things like: “To ensure that the interviews stay within the parameters that we want.”

However, people in power characterize it, censorship is a moral monstrosity. It leaves people on the inside to control information with their own ideas and motivations. It debilitates all of us with a lack of understanding or, just as bad, skewed information. It takes away trust in our systems. It puts democracy itself in question.

Understandably in shock at President Trump’s attacks on the press, some feel these PIO controls are not a primary priority. Actually, this era makes it clearer than ever why we don’t need to leave these networks of controls to people in power.


Kathryn Foxhall, currently a freelance reporter, has written on health and health policy in Washington, D.C., for over 40 years, including 14 years as editor of the newspaper of the American Public Health Association. Email her at kfoxhall@verizon.net.

FBI Drops FOI-By-Email

 

The Daily Dot reported Monday, Feb. 6, that the FBI will stop taking Freedom of Information Act requests via email on March 1.

Your options will be to use a new eFOIPA portal on the agency’s website, send the FBI a fax or send a request by regular mail. (The “P” is for the Privacy Act. Dual-purpose, you see.)

The creation of a dedicated portal to handle requests of any sort should be a cause for celebrating. After all, a portal suggests something easy to use, customer-friendly and, most important, simple.

Unfortunately, the FBI portal is cumbersome, a little intrusive and not easily understood unless you have a lot of experience with the agency and the FOIA.

Monday’s Daily Dot report, and a later TechCrunch article, highlighted the FBI’s decision to stop accepting email FOI requests and reversion to fax and snail mail.

As Taylor Hatmaker put it on TechCrunch:

“In lieu of its popular email service, the FBI suggests sending a fax or snail mail, a procedural change that has more to do with obstructing the law than a dearth of resources.”

Exactly the thought that crossed more than a few journalists’ minds, I’m sure.

So, what was/is wrong with the FBI’s eFOIPA process?

For one thing, as SPJ FOI Committee member Jonathan Peters pointed out in a tweet, it has normal business hours: 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. As Jonathan asked: Why?

For another, the portal’s landing page contains a “terms of service” agreement. Until Tuesday, it noted that only certain types of requests would be handled through the online request system. All other requests would be handled by fax or paper.

Portal requests would not be accepted for agency emails and other documents. Requesters could submit only one request per day and one request per submission. The portal also limited requests to 3,000 characters.

All of those restrictions would seem to violate the intent and spirit of the FOIA. They also lend supporting evidence to those who believe the FBI is less interested in following the law and more invested in obstructing those who would use it.

The Daily Dot’s Andrew Couts and Dell Cameron reported Tuesday afternoon that the FBI was removing its restrictions and would accept all requests via the eFOIPA portal. The agency also said the portal would operate 24 hours a day.

But that still leaves the “terms of service” agreement, which you have to check in order to proceed with a request. Why? Why not just provide notes/warnings/what have you and let it go at that?

Once past the “terms of service,” the requester is greeted with a number of personal questions – address, phone number and a few others that seem unnecessary. In fact, the FBI said in a statement Tuesday that the phone number was only required during testing of the system.

Indeed, the agency told The Daily Dot that it’s had the portal under development for two years. It says on the landing page that the latest iteration is the second beta test, prior to the March 1 public release.

I suggest the FBI hold off and get a developer who understands what users want and need in a government-agency interface.

Jailing of the Press

Big names like Amy Goodman may shout loudly enough that after soliciting national media’s attention, judges drop silly charges that critically challenge their freedom of the press. But not everyone has that kind of pull, and not everyone sees the law play in its favor.

Down in Dawson County, Ga., where less than 25,000 (mostly white) people live, committing acts of journalism can land you in jail.

Nydia Tisdale learned this after years of covering public meetings without any connection to a newspaper, just in fulfilling what she considers her calling: Citizen journalism.

SPJ Florida president, national SPJ Diversity Committee chair, and overall badass Dori Zinn has the story…


Georgia Citizen Journalist Facing Criminal Charges for Recording Public Meeting

By Dori Zinn

Nydia Tisdale showed up to record a Georgia Republican Party campaign rally at Burt’s Pumpkin Farm in Dawsonville on Aug. 23, 2014.

A little bit into her recording, she was forcibly removed by a police officer, even after admitting she had received permission to be at the public gathering by one of the property owners. In the video, you can hear her crying, “Help! Help! Help!” and shouting at the officer, “Identify yourself!” and “Let go of me!” She demanded his name and badge number. He refused to give it to her. He forced her out of the public meeting area into an empty barn, bending her over a countertop and pressing his groin against her backside, leaving her with bruises and emotional distress long after her arrest.

It wouldn’t be until later, when two other officers arrive, that the officer gives Tisdale his name: Dawson County Sheriff’s Office Captain Tony Wooten.

Tisdale was arrested and her video camera was confiscated. Later that day, she was charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass and obstruction of an officer, a felony. Shortly after midnight, she was released on bond and five days after that, she got her camera back.

How did she get here?

This isn’t Tisdale’s first recording. In fact, Tisdale has set up her camera for years, recording hundreds of public meetings across northern Georgia. To date, she’s been recording public meetings across the state, totaling almost 900 videos in six years.

Tisdale doesn’t even call herself a reporter. “A reporter is employed,” she says. “Once they don’t have a job, they become a journalist.”

She may have a different view of what a “reporter” is, but her work is many, many acts of journalism.

“I call myself a video journalist or citizen journalist. Really, just a single woman with a camera,” she says. “No one is dictating to me what to cover and what not to cover.”

In 2009, she was working as a property manager when there was a proposed landfill near the zoning of the property she was managing at the time.

“I was very involved in researching everything I could about the project, and I discovered over time that it wasn’t compliant with state law,” she says.

Eventually, the applicant withdrew his application, but that didn’t stop Forsyth County, where the proposal was set, from misleading the public into believing a landfill would be put there.

Tisdale went to the county meetings, speaking out against the proposal. Even after the landfill fight was over, she met with the county officials to point out all the mistakes they made, including taking advantage of the applicant, who was out tens of thousands of dollars in engineer fees, attorney fees, and paying the county.

“I’m a layperson, I don’t have a degree in this, I’m not a planner,” Tisdale says. “How come I can find these mistakes and all these people that are paid to do it can’t find these mistakes?”

Eventually, the city planner was fired. It was then that Tisdale realized sharing information from public meetings and open forums was important to her.

“With news media shrinking staff, local government isn’t being covered,” she says. “Citizen journalism fills in that gap.”

Tisdale journalism

Tisdale used to easily put 80 to 100 miles on her car a day covering a meeting. She can get around the state if she chooses, but typically stays in north Georgia. Early on, she would record three meetings a day if they were in the same location, but now she goes to about two to three meetings a week.

It’s not limited to one type of meeting, either. She’ll go to city council meetings, county commission meetings, republican and democrat meetings, citizen forums, debates, and literally anything that is open to the public that informs citizens and voters.

When she arrives at whatever meeting she’s going to, she’ll get some shots of the building or the area around where the meeting is being held. Then she’ll record the meeting in its entirety. “Gavel to gavel,” she says.

From there, she edits very little of her actual recording. She indexes her videos, so if you want to skip ahead to a certain part, it’s easy. Sometimes, if one part is more meaningful than the rest, she’ll make an excerpt of it.

“I give the full context and speech,” she says. “It’s unfiltered and without commentary.”

While Tisdale has been hired to film some public meetings, she doesn’t normally get paid. But she does have a PayPal donation option on her website, AboutForsyth.com. Journalism isn’t her primary source of income, but it occupies as much time as a full-time journalism job.

When she started attending meetings and realized they weren’t compliant with Georgia Sunshine Laws, she’d complain to the city, county, or whatever body was in charge of that meeting. Now she carries around a copy of it to every meeting she attends, sometimes handing out copies to other people.

Despite her solid six years and 900 videos, this is her first time facing jail time for recording open meetings.

What’s happening now?

Tisdale’s original 2014 charges — a misdemeanor criminal trespass and a felony obstruction of an officer — got an additional obstruction of an officer charge, this time as a misdemeanor, bringing her total to three. She was indicted on Nov. 16, 2015 in Dawson County, but not before giving an ante litem notice — an intent to sue — on Aug. 20, 2015 to everyone involved in the 2014 arrest, including: Dawson County, the Sheriff’s office, the three officers that arrested Tisdale, and Johnny and Kathy Burt of Burt’s Farm, among others.

She was formally arraigned this year on March 15 and filed her federal lawsuit against the three officers that arrested her on May 9, including Officer Tony Wooten. On Aug. 22, she made a complaint to Dawson County about Wooten’s physical abuse during her arrest and an incident report was made the next day, alleging sexual assault. Wooten resigned from the Dawson County Sherriff’s Office the same day.

In early October, Tisdale had a pre-trial motions hearing in her criminal case, but no judgment has been made.

Jail time may be pending for Tisdale, but she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.

“I really enjoy what I do. It’s a passion,” she says. “Any event that’s worth remembering, I usually have a camera and I record it.”


Dori Zinn is a full-time freelance journalist based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Her work has been featured in MoneyTalksNews.com, Realtor.com, Fort Lauderdale Magazine, South Florida Gay News, and others.

DOJ Should Improve Requirements For How Death In Police Custody Data Is Collected

The Deaths in Custody Reporting Act was signed into law in 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice is now proposing how it will mandate reporting requirements for law enforcement agencies across the country.

If someone dies in police custody, the public has a right to know.

It may sound simple, but news outlets and media investigations have shown that is not always the case.

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With “Fatal Force,” The Washington Post is tracking the number of people who have been shot and killed by police. The Guardian is also keeping track of these deaths with their project, “The Counted.”

Why are news organizations keeping track and becoming the go-to place for this information and data? Because current reporting is not sufficient. According to an FBI report, in 2014, only 224 of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies reported around 444 fatal police shootings to the FBI.

It is unacceptable for the government to rely on media organizations to provide this information to the public. While the organizations that have stepped up and gathered the data are doing it well, what happens if the funding for these projects ends? It is also risky. The media is gathering data from what it has available to them, which is limited information compared to what the government has access to and could require law enforcement agencies to provide.

Having tried to use the data law enforcement agencies voluntarily report to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, BJS, I know the frustration first hand. Sometimes you find data but sometimes you don’t. If you want to know how many people were shot and killed by law enforcement in a particular county, you may be forced to ask and then search through individual agencies records, compiling the data into your own database.

The Deaths in Custody Reporting Act, DICRA, was supposed to help fix this reporting issue, among other things. The U.S. Department of Justice has now proposed how it will implement DICRA and is accepting public comment on the proposal until October 3. Click here to read more and how to comment.

The proposal has a number of weaknesses though and in a letter, the Society of Professional Journalists and 66 other organizations are asking the DOJ to strengthen its proposal for how law enforcement agencies will be required to report data detailing the number and how individuals die while in police custody.

Some of the concerns outlined in the letter include:

  • A lack of consequences for not reporting accurate data, including detailing possible penalties for non-reporting or linking federal funding to reporting compliance
  • The indication that BJS will rely on publicly available information “open-source review,” including news reports, for the data collection
  • Lack of details on how federal law enforcement agencies will comply with DICRA

Click here to read the letter.

As mentioned above, some news organizations have made a commitment to tracking how many people are being shot and killed by law enforcement. While the work being done by these news organizations is detailed and well-researched, is this enough?

Shouldn’t the media and in turn the public be able to easily obtain data from the government about the individuals being killed by law enforcement, public employees, with salaries funded by tax dollars? Not to mention the fact that close to $4 billion in federal grants is awarded annually to local and state law enforcement agencies. Doesn’t this make what the agencies do, also the public’s businesses?

I think so and so does SPJ.

Do you agree? Let the DOJ know. Below are some ways to share your thoughts on social media.

  • Here are some deficiencies in @TheJusticeDept’s proposal for collecting data on deaths in police custody: http://bit.ly/2c0oqWo @spj_tweets
  • .@TheJusticeDept has a proposal for collecting data on deaths in police custody. Here’s why it must be strengthened: http://bit.ly/2c0oqWo
  • Gov. should provide journalists w/ #transparent data about deaths in police custody not other way around: http://bit.ly/2c0oqWo @spj_tweets

Lynn Walsh is the current President-Elect for SPJ. She manages and leads the #NBC7 Investigates team in San Diego. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Follow her on Twitter, @LWalsh, or contact her via email: Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com.

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