At the Guardian's Masterclass on Investigative Journalism, Helen Darbishire of Access Info gave a fascinating talk on our right of access to information. Her presentation was entitled Your Right to Know: Legal Leaks. This is a topical subject in Britain. 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. There is also much discussion about a British bill of rights.
Following a brief history, Helen explained that Freedom of Expression includes the Right of Access to Information (UN Human Rights Committee, Article 19, 27 July 2011). Such information includes records held by a public body, regardless of the form in which the information is stored, its source and date of publication (e.g. even an official's handwritten notes).
There are two obligations:
i) Reactive - obligation to respond to FOI requests
ii) Proactive - obligation to publish information.
Helen gave the audience ten top tips to follow in pursuing FOI requests
· TIP 1
It might be public already!
· TIP 2
Set prejudice aside
(Don't assume that you will never get the desired information).
· TIP 3
Know your right/law
· TIP 4
Keep a record of your requests. Set an alarm.
European FOI time frames vary
Best in class: Estonia, Iceland & Sweden at 5 days
Worst in class: Austria at 42 days
United Kingdom: 20 days
· TIP 5
· TIP 6
Go public with your request
A request is a story. Campaign for an answer.
· TIP 7
Be prepared for the answer
Have experts on standby to help you analyse the data on receipt.
· TIP 8
Send separate requests. Don't be too obvious in what you are after.
Cross-referencing information can fill in blanks.
· TIP 9
Appeal, Appeal, Appeal
Know the deadlines. Ask for an expert. Cultivate pro bono lawyers.
· TIP 10
A refusal is a story to publish
· BONUS TIP
It's your right: use it or lose it!