Journalism groups say FDA policy limits access to info

Friday, December 4, 2009

Eleven journalism organizations are urging the Food and Drug Administration to end practices that they contend restrict the public’s access to information.

Twelve individuals joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Association of Health Care Journalists, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, and eight other professional journalism groups in sending a Dec. 1 letter to the agency’s Transparency Task Force.

The organizations, representing thousands of journalists, demand that the FDA end its requirement that journalists and FDA employees notify or obtain permission from an agency official before conducting an interview.

Reporters often must wait days after filing an application with the FDA before they receive permission to speak to a staff member, said Charles Ornstein, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists in a Dec. 2 press release.

Even then, he added, reporters’ interview requests are sometimes ignored or simply denied.

The journalism groups also object to the presence of public information officers during interviews.

“That practice chills communication and inhibits public servants from sharing information with reporters,” said Ornstein. “And it limits what the public is allowed to know about the government.”

The letter noted that public information officers can play an important role in facilitating interviews and answering questions, “but when they forbid, delay or monitor contact between reporters and employees, they interfere with the public’s right to know and can delay access to timely information necessary to protect and advance public health.”

The groups urged the FDA to restore its previous policy allowing open communication between the news media and agency employees, citing its use of such a policy in nearly all prior administrations.

The journalism groups wrote to the FDA’s Transparency Task Force, which was created under the Obama administration, appealing to the administration’s pledge to increase government transparency.

“In keeping with President Obama’s promise to make government more transparent and accountable, we hope FDA will end these harmful practices and restore the free flow of information,” the letter stated.

Earlier this year, three Association of Health Care Journalists board members called on President Barack Obama to end restrictions on journalists’ access to federal staff. In their Feb. 26 letter to the president, the AHCJ board members included the FDA in a list of federal agencies that have restrictive interview policies.

Allie Diffendal is a senior majoring in political science and American studies at Vanderbilt University.

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