Challenge to government: Stop shutting off info

Thursday, March 16, 2006

ARLINGTON, Va. — National Freedom of Information Day 2006 opened with a charge to journalists, as representatives of the public, to fight growing government efforts to shield information.

Former journalist and chief State Department spokesman Hodding Carter, borrowing a phrase from journalist Alan Barth, urged members of the news media to live up to their duty as the “tribune of the people.”

The public’s “rights are at stake. We — you — all of us have the means to protect them. … Tribune of the people. That is the high calling (of the news media), and that is an absolute necessity. Kick back. Take names. Be relentless. Be consistent. That is our duty, our obligation.”

Carter’s rousing keynote address, which he titled “Fooling the People,” kicked off this year’s conference, “FOIA at Forty: The Past’s Lessons For The Future.”

During his speech, Carter warned of what he termed an “unrelenting, full-court assault” on openness.

“In ways unseen for a half century — since the height of the Cold War in the 1950s — government is systematically shutting down the taps, drying up the flow of information to the American people, cutting back on the spirit and the letter of the Freedom of Information Act and, I would add, the Bill of Rights.”

To combat this attack, Carter said, open-government advocates, specifically journalists, need to be vocal activists for the public. But too often, he said, those entrusted with the responsibility to speak for the public remain silent.

“Freedom. Liberty. Self-government. Accountability. Transparency. The Constitution. People died for those words. Wars were fought because of those words. History was made by those words. And we are too sophisticated to invoke them, to demand them? … What has happened to our capacity for outrage? … Where are our refuseniks to say no to a government determined to shackle the people’s right to know the raw materials of freedom?”

Carter acknowledged that there can be legitimate reasons, such as national security, for public officials to shield information. However, judging from his experience as a Marine lieutenant and a State Department spokesman, he said, most information that is hidden from the public is done so without just cause.

“I can say categorically, on experience, that the vast majority of all information squirreled away behind the classification stamp has nothing to do with national security. Nothing. Nothing. You could throw 90 percent of it out the windows along Pennsylvania Avenue and nothing of value to national security would be lost.”

Carter ended his speech with the same charge that he gave earlier: for journalists to act fully and forcefully as the public’s voice. “Tribune of the people, folks. Tribune of the people.”

The annual First Amendment Center symposium brings together public-access advocates, government officials, lawyers, librarians, journalists, educators and others to discuss the latest issues and developments in freedom of information.

The 2006 conference is sponsored by the First Amendment Center and co-sponsored by Sunshine Week, in cooperation with the American Library Association.

Coverage of the conference panels will continue throughout the day.

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