Last year at this time, a number of magazine editors and TV producers were getting ready to share Sochi Winter Olympics-timed pieces examining the very difficult life for Russia’s LGBT residents. This week, three of those efforts have been nominated for 2014 GLAAD Media Awards.
The first, \"Inside the Iron Closet: What It’s Like to Be Gay in Putin’s Russia,” appeared in the February issue of GQ. The Outstanding Magazine Article nominee, by Jeff Sharlet, chronicles a pair of weeks spent in the country in the fall of 2013:
I wanted to see what ordinary LGBT life was like in a nation whose leaders have decided that “homosexualism” is a threat to its “sexual sovereignty,” that “genderless tolerance,” in Putin’s words, is a disease of the West that Russia will cure. The medicine is that of “traditional values,” a phrase, ironically, imported from the West, grafted onto a deeply conformist strain of nationalism. In Russia, that means silence and violence, censorship, and in its shadow, much worse.
The second Russian LGBT journalism nominee is the five-part Vice News video series Young and Gay in Putin’s Russia. It too was based on travels to the country ahead of last Winter’s Olympics and is nominated for Outstanding Digital Journalism – Multimedia:
We take a ride in Moscow’s gay taxi service, hear about the rise of homophobic vigilante groups and meet Yulia, who runs LGBT self-defense classes.
Also nominated by GLAAD this year, in the Best Documentary category, is the Epix original To Russia with Love. The explores the subject through the eyes of figure skater and commentator Johnny Weir, U.S. Olympic delegate Billie Jean King, athletes and activists.
The awards will be presented in Los Angeles March 21. For a full list of this year’s nominees, including the five very intriguing entries for Outstanding Blog, click here.
Wired’s editor-in-chief Scott Dadich announced several moves this morning. Details are below.
- David Pierce is joining as a senior writer. He comes to the magazine from The Verge, where he served as deputy editor. His first day is February 2.
- Robert Capps has been named head of editorial. In this role, Capps will oversee editorial content across all of Wired’s platforms, assist Dadich with bringing in new writers, and craft the overall vision of the magazine.
- Mark McClusky, most recently editor of Wired.com, has been named head of operations.
- Mark Robinson has been named executive editor of Wired and Joe Brown has been named executive editor of Wired.com.
- Jason Tanz has been named an editor-at-large.
- Kathleen Vignos has been named director of engineering.
Click here to receive Mediabistro’s Morning Media Newsfeed via email.
Paris Mayor: We’ll ‘Have to Sue’ Fox News (TVNewser)
The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour the city has had its honor and image \"insulted\" and \"prejudiced\" and intends to sue Fox News over its coverage following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, including a discussion of \"no-go zones\" in Paris neighborhoods, for which the network has apologized. THR Fox News executive VP Michael Clemente issued a statement in response: “We empathize with the citizens of France as they go through a healing process and return to everyday life. However, we find the mayor’s comments regarding a lawsuit misplaced.” Variety Fox News, part of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, had invited self-proclaimed terrorism expert Steven Emerson on one of its program segments in the wake of the attacks at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher market in Paris as part of its coverage of those events Jan. 11. HuffPost Though the exact details of the lawsuit are unclear, over the weekend Fox News apologized to “the people of France and England” for erroneously suggesting that certain European cities have “no-go zones” where non-Muslims are not welcome. Poynter / MediaWire The idea of a lawsuit like the one France is proposing being successful in the U.S. is \"absurd,\" said Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for Reporters Committee for The Freedom of The Press.
Netflix Shares Soar on Earnings Report (THR)
Netflix added 4.33 million members worldwide in the fourth quarter, ending the year with 57.4 million, more than what Wall Street analysts expected. Shares of Netflix were up more than 13 percent after the closing bell on Tuesday once the results were known. Variety The No. 1 subscription video-on-demand provider reported quarterly revenue of $1.48 billion, up 26 percent year over year, with net income of $83.4 million (including a $37.9 million tax benefit). GigaOM In Q4, it added a total of 2.43 million subscribers abroad, and now has a total of 18.28 million members in its 50 international markets. Domestically, it ended 2014 with 39.11 million subscribers, compared to 33.42 million a year before that. WSJ In a letter to shareholders Tuesday, Netflix said its international progress has been so strong that it expects to complete its expansion, while staying profitable, over the next two years, earlier than it had expected. When done, Netflix expects to be operating in 200 countries, up from 50 countries now. Netflix, however, said its international expansion will continue weighing on its profits. The company expects lower full-year operating income for 2015 than last year.
NBC to Stream Super Bowl, Halftime Show for Free (LostRemote)
NBC announced Tuesday that Super Bowl Sunday will also be \"Super Stream Sunday.\" Starting at noon, the network will stream pre-game coverage, the game, the halftime show and conclude 11 hours later with The Blacklist, all for free. Deadline The promotion is part of an effort to push the cable industry’s \"TV Everywhere\" initiative that usually makes such digital-video streams available only to those who can prove they’re pay-TV subscribers. Variety NBC does not have NFL live-streaming rights on smartphone devices, which the league has granted exclusively to Verizon Wireless. As such, the \"Super Stream Sunday\" content will be available on tablets and desktop computers. Both NFL.com and SuperBowl.com will link to NBC’s live stream of Super Bowl XLIX for fans in the U.S.; that’s slated to include interactive online and social features created by the league complementing the NBC broadcast of the game. The NFL also will serve up a host of content on NFL Now, its digital-only network launched this season, surrounding the Super Bowl. Mashable The network first live streamed the Super Bowl in 2010, drawing at most around 500,000 viewers, less than 1 percent of the game’s total viewership. Since then, other networks that have aired the game, including Fox and CBS, have also streamed it. However, this is the first year the Halftime Show will be available for streaming.
Hoax-Free Facebook News Feed? (SocialTimes)
The latest initiative by Facebook to clean up its News Feed is an attempt to warn users of hoaxes. The social network announced this initiative in a Newsroom post by software engineer Erich Owens and research scientist Udi Weinsberg. HuffPost / Reuters The company said it had introduced an option to allow Facebook users to flag a story as “purposefully fake or deceitful news” to reduce the distribution of news stories reported as hoaxes. Facebook said it will not remove fake news stories from its website. Instead, the company’s algorithm, which determines how widely user posts are distributed, will take into account hoax reports. Poynter / MediaWire Publishers of satirical content, like The Onion and its sister site Clickhole, likely will not be affected by the change because testing indicates \"people tend not to report satirical content intended to be humorous,\" according to the post. Rather, publishers who try to pass off scams or \"deliberately false\" stories will see a reduced circulation in their posts after readers flag the articles as such.
The Interview Makes $40 Million Online, On-Demand (Variety)
Despite terrorist threats and a last-minute digital release, The Interview has generated more than $40 million in rentals and sales, Sony Pictures reports. In addition, The Interview has been rented or purchased online and through cable, satellite, and telecom providers more than 5.8 million times from Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014, through Sunday, Jan. 18, 2015. CNN Money The production budget for The Interview was about $44 million — so with the combined $46 million from on-demand and theatrical sales, the studio can now celebrate that it’s surpassed that total. But it still has a ways to go. Sony has to split the revenue from rentals and ticket sales with the distributors. Furthermore, the marketing budget for the movie was at least $20 million. THR Sony also announced Tuesday that the film will make its way to Netflix on Saturday, Jan. 24.
The Verge Releases Its First Super Bowl Ad (PRNewser)
The Verge will be the first new media brand to advertise during the Super Bowl. NYT The Verge, a technology website owned by the online media company Vox, said on Tuesday that it would be airing the advertisement, before revealing that it would in fact be spending just $700 on a regional spot in Helena, Mont. WSJ / CMO Today NBC is charging marketers about $4.5 million for 30 seconds of national Super Bowl air time, but it’s not uncommon for marketers to purchase local ads so they can boast about being a Super Bowl advertiser.
Sophie Donelson Named Editor-in-Chief of House Beautiful (FishbowlNY)
Sophie Donelson has been named editor-in-chief of House Beautiful. Donelson comes to the magazine from Cricket’s Circle, an editorial and e-commerce site for expecting parents. Adweek Earlier in her career, Donelson held editor and writer positions at shelter publications including Elle Décor, Blueprint, Hamptons Cottages & Gardens, and Curbed, in addition to freelancing for magazines like House Beautiful. Since 2009, she has also hosted a video series for the design industry website The Editor at Large.
NYT Launches Lifestyle Newsletter (FishbowlNY)
The New York Times is expanding its newsletter offerings with NYT Living, a newsletter that will feature Times content on a wide variety of subjects — like life and style. Capital New York The newsletter, which will arrive in inboxes on Thursdays, will round up articles, videos, multimedia pieces and slideshows from the paper’s Styles, Travel, Food and Home sections, according to a company statement. Simone Oliver, recently named growth strategy editor of lifestyle news, will edit NYT Living.
The Sun Has Got Its Top on: Page 3 Covers Up After 45 Years (The Times)
The Sun will no longer feature topless models on Page 3 after quietly dropping one of the most controversial traditions in British journalism. The Washington Post After more than four decades of public enjoyment and outrage, the paper did not publish — and will no longer publish — photos of topless women on its infamous Page 3 as of Friday. Page 3 as we knew it began in 1970 when Sun editor Larry Lamb took a risk. When owner Rupert Murdoch was out of the country, Lamb published topless photos of a 20-year-old German model on Page 3.
What Politician Doesn’t Like Arguing on Cable Shows? (TVNewser)
In his penultimate State of The Union address, President Obama told members of congress he was once one of them. While the Foxes (FNC and FBN) and the NBCs (NBC News and MSNBC) brought on members of congress for reaction, CNN, Al Jazeera America and Bloomberg kept the discussion to panelists and correspondents. As always, the cable nets went beyond 11 p.m. ET with coverage, CBS and FOX returned to programming at 10:35 p.m., ABC wrapped up at 10:37, and NBC went until 11 p.m.
AOL to Debut Long-Form Video Series (FishbowlNY)
AOL is partnering with FremantleMedia International to debut its first long-form video series. Connected — which was originally launched in Israel in 2009 — will debut on AOL’s On Network in March.
FCC Rejects Viacom, ESPN Efforts to Avoid $1.4 Million Fine for Airing Ad (Re/code)
The Federal Communications Commission rejected appeals from Viacom and Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN to avoid paying a combined $1.4 million for airing a movie trailer ad that used the Emergency Alert System tones. The FCC slapped the companies and Comcast’s NBCUniversal with a combined $1.93 million fine for airing the ads for the movie Olympus Has Fallen last March.
Financial Times Appoints New Senior Editors (WWD / Memo Pad)
The Financial Times, under U.S. managing editor Gillian Tett, who returned stateside in September, made a string of senior editorial appointments on Tuesday. Megan Murphy has grabbed the reins as Washington bureau chief.
BBC3 Not for Sale, Says Corporation in Response to Planned Bid for Channel (The Guardian)
The BBC has said BBC3 is \"not for sale because it’s not closing,\" in response to an audacious bid to buy the channel. Leading independent producers Jon Thoday and Jimmy Mulville planned to submit a proposal to the BBC to buy the youth-focused TV channel, saving it from a move to online-only distribution.
Charlie Hebdo Launches App Featuring Latest Issue (Mashable)
Charlie Hebdo has launched a new mobile app for iOS, Android and Windows phones, less than a week after it published the first edition of its magazine since the terrorist attack on its office earlier this month.
After studying previously unpublished documents received from whistleblower Edward Snowden, The Guardian revealed yesterday that the British signals intelligence agency GCHQ described journalists as a “potential threat to security” and that the emails of many journalists were among the 70,000 emails it intercepted in a brief exercise in November 2008.
Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) clearly has a strange view of journalism. “Journalists and reporters representing all types of news media represent a potential threat to security,” said a GCHQ memo discovered by The Guardian.
Reporters Without Borders points out that freedom of information is protected by many international treaties and is a keystone of democracy and the rule of law because it protects the existence of the other fundamental freedoms.
The emails of journalists with Le Monde, The Guardian, New York Times, The Sun, NBC and The Washington Post were among the 70,000 emails that GCHQ managed to intercept in the space of just ten minutes in a test exercise mentioned in one of the documents leaked by Snowden.
Any authorized employee could have read them on the GCHQ intranet. Given the volume that was intercepted in such as short space of time, Reporters Without Borders wonders how many journalists' emails have been intercepted in the past six years.
Reporters Without Borders hopes that this view of the work of journalists is not reflected in the new anti-terrorism bill that was due to go before the House of Lords yesterday.
Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to step up data surveillance and interception if reelected in May. In a recent meeting in Nottingham, he said: “The question remains: are we going to allow a means of communications where it simply is not possible to do that? My answer to that question is: no, we must not.”
Reporters Without Borders condemned GCHQ's disastrous impact on freedom of information in its 2014 “Enemies of the Internet” report, and added GCHQ to its list of “Enemies of the Internet.” In the light of The Guardian's revelation, it clearly should have been added in 2008.
Five years ago today, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against political candidates.
The court declared that spending by labor unions and companies — including certain types of nonprofit corporations — did “not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption” so long as it was not done in concert or coordination with a political candidate’s own campaign.
While it is still illegal for corporations and labor unions to give money directly to candidates for federal office, that ruling, known as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, has dramatically reshaped the political landscape for federal and state elections.
Among the most significant developments: a surge of political “dark money” — secret cash that opaque nonprofit organizations funnel into U.S. elections. Such groups do not publicly disclose their donors.
Here are a dozen stories from the Center for Public Integrity that illuminate how Citizens United has changed politics.1. Clinton could become top 'Citizens United' beneficiary
An oft-forgotten footnote to the Citizens United decision is that it all began with a low-budget film about Democrat Hillary Clinton. Now, if Clinton decides to run for president in 2016, she may become its beneficiary-in-chief, poised to cash in like no other political candidate has before. Keep reading
2. Where lax rules provide cover for sponsors of attack ads
Much criticism has been lobbed at the federal system for failing to adequately identify who is spending money to influence campaigns. But a study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics found that 35 states had independent spending disclosure laws that are less stringent than the federal rules. Keep reading
3. How will the IRS tackle 'dark money' flow?
The Internal Revenue Service is one of the cops on the beat for the growing constellation of big-spending, politically driven nonprofits. But the tax agency’s nonprofit division has been grappling with a decimated staff and limited resources. This malaise has allowed organizations waiting for IRS approval to continue to spend freely on elections while keeping the names of their donors secret. Keep reading
4. Company filings shine light on 'dark money'
The Citizens United ruling in 2010 did not, as some warned, unleash a flood of corporate money directly into elections. But since then, scores of blue-chip U.S. companies have quietly bankrolled politically active nonprofits — to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Keep reading
5. Drug lobby bankrolled nonprofit that boosted Sen. Orrin Hatch
When six-term GOP incumbent Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah faced the prospect of a mutiny from conservative activists, his allies within the pharmaceutical industry stepped in to help defend him. Documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity show that PhRMA, the drug lobby’s main trade group, gave $750,000 in 2011 to Freedom Path, a “social welfare” nonprofit that spent big to help Hatch win another term. That sum amounted to nearly 90 percent of Freedom Path’s revenue that year. Keep reading
6. Pro-Romney group received $1 million from Canadian-owned company
A million-dollar donation in 2012 by a Canadian-owned corporation to a pro-Mitt Romney super PAC sparked legal concerns and opened up the Citizens United decision to new criticism. The law says that foreign nationals are prohibited from “directly or indirectly” contributing money to influence U.S. elections. But campaign finance law is not as clear for U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies as it is for individuals. Keep reading
7. Montana judicial candidate blames mystery nonprofit's attacks for defeat
Ads from nonprofit group Montana Growth Network said Ed Sheehy, a candidate for the state’s Supreme Court, had an “activist agenda” for his defense of Tyler Michael Miller, the so-called “Christmas Day Killer” who murdered his girlfriend and her 15-year-old daughter. Sheehy said the ads were “misrepresenting” what he did as a public defender. Not only did that make him furious, but so did the fact that the Montana Growth Network wasn’t required to disclose how much it spent on most of its ads — let alone who was funding them. Keep reading
8. Secretive nonprofits succeeded in 2014 state elections
More than three dozen nonprofit groups collectively spent an estimated $25 million buying TV ads in state-level elections in 2014 while keeping their donors secret, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, an ad tracking service. And these groups’ donors were often more successful than other political advertisers that did name their funders. Keep reading
9. Unions take advantage of 'Citizens United' in state elections
The Republican Party, boosted by billionaires and corporate backers, has frequently been painted as the biggest beneficiary of the Citizens United decision. But during 2012, Democrats flipped the script in several states. Ultimately, pro-Democratic groups, many of them associated with labor unions, outspent their Republican counterparts in these state-level elections. Keep reading
10. Billionaires use super PACs to advance pet causes
The first generation of super PACs operated as shadow party committees. Next came candidate-specific super PACs, like those in 2012 that aided President Barack Obama and his GOP rival, Mitt Romney. The 2014 election cycle brought on the newest iteration: the single-issue vanity super PAC — a group backed by a lone, wealthy donor focusing on an issue of national significance, such as climate change or gun violence. Keep reading
11. Meet the Kentucky nonprofit using mystery money to attack Democrat Alison Grimes
In his re-election bid, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was aided by a “social welfare” nonprofit called the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition. Advised by one of McConnell’s former top aides, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition spent more than $14 million — and accounted for about one of every 7 TV ads in McConnell’s race. Critics called it a “dark money” group that “operates almost entirely for the private benefit and political advancement of a single well-financed candidate,” although officials with the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition have maintained it followed the law. Keep reading
12. New FEC chief targets political 'dark money'
Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel — a left-leaning Democrat and campaign finance reformer — says she'll fight to out people behind secretive political cash, regardless of party. “It’s not a partisan question for me” she told the Center for Public Integrity. As she leads the FEC in 2015, expect her to evangelize her gospel of transparency to outside-the-Beltway folks who aren’t election lawyers or political practitioners. Keep reading
The Bulgarian Financial Supervision Commission has imposed fines of up to 80,000 euros each on several newspapers for disclosing information about the banking sector. Reporters Without Borders deplores this political attempt to silence news organizations.
Earlier this month the Commission ordered the Economedia publishing group to pay a record fine of 150,000 leva (approx. 80,000 euros). The group, which publishes the weekly Capital and the daily Dnevnik, also received an additional fine of 10,000 (5,000 euros) for refusing to disclose its sources.
The commission based its case on the law against market manipulation. A fine of 100,000 leva stemmed from complaints by the construction firms Vodstroy 98 and Industrial Construction Holding. Capital reported that the two firms, controlled by the entrepreneur and politician Delyan Peevski of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, had withdrawn their assets from the First Investment Bank (Fibank). Economedia must also pay a fine of 50,000 leva (approx. 25,000 euros) for publishing a story about the pharmaceutical company Sophorama.
It was the first time that the Financial Supervision Commission had imposed such high fines. The total of fines imposed for market manipulation for 2013 was less than the fine received by Economedia alone.
“The commission is clearly trying to silence these newspaper which, for several years, have been disclosing serious irregularities in the financial sector,” said Reporters Without Borders programme director Lucie Morillon.Record fines aimed at censuring media
Other news organizations have also been hit by sanctions imposed by the Financial Supervision Commission and the Bulgarian National Bank.
In early January, the online newspaper zovnews.com was fined 100,000 leva by the commission for reporting that Fibank was under threat of bankruptcy. One journalist who was not identified was fined 50,000 leva.
Late last year, the Financial Supervision Commission also launched similar legal proceedings against two other news organizations – the websites mediapool.bg and bivol.bg.
“The Financial Supervision Commission attacks news organizations that mention the banking crisis … and the inability of institutions and politicians to respond to it resolutely and decisively,” said Alexander Kashumov, a lawyer and campaigner for freedom of expression who represents Economedia. “Instead of punishing those responsible for the instability, they target the messenger.”Tried and tested modus operandi
The Financial Supervision Commission launched major proceedings against Capital and Economedia in summer 2014 and since then the editorial department of Capital has received dozens of letters containing allegations of infringements of the law. It was also ordered to disclose its sources.
“Instead of working to restore stability and confidence in the financial system, the commission has undertaken extreme action against the media,” said Galya Prokopieva, managing director of Economedia. “In doing so, it has revealed the extent of the institutional crisis among financial regulators.”
Yesterday, 200 people demonstrated in protest against the fines outside the Bulgarian Parliament in response to an appeal by the recently launched NGO Free WordFair trial
The right to a fair trial is protected under article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states: “In the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge … everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.” The commission's actions are now threatening this right.
“The Financial Supervision Commission is incapable of guaranteeing impartiality, independence and the right to be heard,” said Lucie Morillon. “It is part of the banking world and should not in any circumstances prevail over the Bulgarian constitution, which is the guarantor of freedom of the press. Furthermore, the commission has no jurisdiction over the rights of the media and it is the responsibility of the Bulgarian government not to ensure the media are not censored by the imposition of such high fines.”
Bulgaria is ranked 100th of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, the lowest position of any European Union country.
Editor's Note: The UK-based nonprofit mySociety, which develops digital tools for citizens to engage more directly with government, received a grant from the Open Society Foundations in 2014 to study the effects of online freedom of information (FOI) tools.
Its study reached some surprising conclusions about who actually uses these sites, and whether they are having any impact on accountability. Under the Creative Commons license, GIJN has adapted the following summary from the study to show the most relevant takeaways for investigative journalists. The full report can be downloaded here. For helpful links on FOI tools, see also GIJN's updated resource page.
Two important caveats are worth noting: first, a major purpose of the report was for mySociety to evaluate its own product Alaveteli, a free and open source software that helps organizations run FOI platforms. Second, the study's methodology is based largely on a literature review and interviews with implementers of the FOI platforms in 27 countries, and the authors stress that more research is needed.
FOI, Transparency, and AccountabilityWhile there may be some indication of improved transparency, there is no such movement towards accountability as yet.
Today, “openness” is a buzzword – we hear of open data, open government, open development. Within the “open” movement, a citizen’s right to (government) information, also known as “access to information” or “Freedom of Information” plays a key role. Freedom of Information (FOI) usually equates to a model that provides a universal right of access to documents in the possession of government departments and agencies, and imposes on such entities additional obligations to publish and make available specific information.
The aims of FOI are to increase government transparency, increase the rights of citizens, create a more informed citizenry, increase government accountability, increase public trust, and improve quality of government decision-making.
The majority of countries recognized FOI as a right, largely from the 1990s onwards. While by 1990, only 13 countries had implemented FOI legislation, between 1990 and 2000 inclusive, 20 additional countries had done so and between 2000 and 2014, another 65 countries joined them, bringing the total at the time of writing to 98 countries, with many other countries in the process of implementing legislation (see Global Right to Information Rating).
Around the world, government and non-governmental organizations are launching web platforms enabling people to make FOI requests digitally. In theory, online FOI should should improve transparency and accountability even more through ease of access, ease of request and response, the “multiplier” effect of many groups accessing the same information, building on it and sharing it, the “glare effect” of information being much more visible, and generally beating the path to accountability.
However, both offline and online, FOI faces similar challenges: impact and the transition from transparency to accountability; equitable access, security and privacy; cost and time burden both to requester and responder; institutional and public perception; and complex roles of media and civil society. While there may be some indication of improved transparency, there is no such movement towards accountability as yet.
Transparency is ineffective without accountability – the relationship between the power holder (account provider) and delegator (account demander). And the evolution from transparency to accountability is equally dependent on a number of factors, not least of which is citizen participation.
Governments can “drown” people in information—providing quantity, but not necessarily quality. It’s “transparency theatre” says David Cabo of current transparency and accountability indicators. [Cabo launched Spain's Freedom of Information site, TuDerechoaSaber]. “They do like, 100 indicators of ‘how transparent our government is’ and then they go through websites and tick boxes and: ‘here is the name of the Minister’, and ‘here is the contact email’ ... it’s a very easy exam to pass”.
Indeed, disclosure of documents is not sufficient to cause change. Other actors, such as civil society organizations (CSOs), journalists, and “techie” activists, need to process, digest, and interpret the raw data. In spite of this need, media and CSO use of FOI has not been as great as anticipated. Why is this?
Lack of Use by Journalists and NGOs
We found that academic research on the extent of FOI usage, and motivations for using it, across both types of institution, results in mixed conclusions. A U.S. study showed that 6% of FOI requests came from the media, and 2% from non-profit organizations, whereas more than 60% of requests came from commercial interests and the remainder were categorized as “other”. Similarly low usage by CSOs is reported in Scotland (13% of total requests) and Ireland (11%).Disclosure of documents is not sufficient to cause change. Other actors, such as journalists and “techie” activists, need to process, digest, and interpret the raw data.
In the UK, Hazell, et. al., find that 37% of requests are from charity and campaign workers, the media and political parties, whereas more than 60% do not fall into these categories. In terms of appeals, the Scottish Information Commission found 77% of appeals from the public, but only 4% from CSOs. However, as with all statistics, we would need to analyze the difference in the latter in more detail – it could simply be that journalists and CSOs are able to access the information they require more easily first time around, while in general, members of the public are not.
Overall, however, it seems that their usage is low – or at least, if accurately self-reported. Why might this be the case?Governments can “drown” people in information—providing quantity, but not necessarily quality.
In our literature review of media use on FOI, we found a number of reasons. First, the average 20–30 day time limit on FOI means that the media, usually working under tight time and resource pressures, are likely to look at other means – so much of the use is likely to be by medium to long-term investigative journalists (no bad thing, but only a small proportion of journalism in general).
Second, the essence of FOI is that it’s more about the local – the pothole in the road, the local library, the decision to close allotments, and the local does not make national news.
Third, of course, the media industry needs to be independent enough to challenge government. Media use and publicity also depends on budgets. Only a few newspapers have the financial capacity to expend such sums.
Finally, the impact of the media also depends on how other actors, including the public and government itself, respond to media exposure.
Similarly, there is low use of FOI laws and tools by CSOs. In a 2011 survey of 705 CSOs in Scotland, 50.8% said they had made an FOI request, and 50.4% said they were likely to use it in the future. While time, cost, and lack of knowledge about the process were all cited as factors as to why they had not yet used FOI or would not do so, a more revealing finding was that almost half of CSOs (49%) said they were worried that making FOI requests may harm working or funding relations and that an FOI request would be seen as “aggressive or confrontational”.
Examining users of online FOI platforms, we found that interviews with implementers of the tools largely echo the above literature review conclusions: that generally "active citizens", rather than usage by journalists or CSOs, are using the sites on a large scale.
For the media, it's the length time limit for response, the fear of losing a competitive scoop (particularly when the exchange is publicly available), and a prevailing "leak" culture in general.
Among CSOs, using online FOI platforms is not the preferred way for the organizations to obtain information from government. While there appear to be benefits (particularly in joining forces for strength in numbers, and saving time and money), the length of time taken and public glare, coupled with already established methods of contact with government or fear of formalizing the request and souring government-CSO relations, may dissuade CSOs from using the sites.
Moreover, obtaining successful results from FOI requires a number of pre-conditions – whatever the local context, the process can be complicated if you cannot access the Internet, don’t know the law, cannot be specific about what you are looking for, don’t have a clear sense of which body holds the information, or don’t have the resources (both time and money) to pursue the case, particularly if you must go through an appeals process.
Then there is the trouble with attribution. Even when FOI inquiries yield “successes”—such as disclosures about police mishandling in the UK’s Hillsborough disaster in which 96 soccer fans lost their lives, or in India, where several studies found that the Right to Information Act helped expose massive corruption by local officials in food programs, pension funds, and employment guarantee schemes—in many of these cases we do not know the chain of events or factors leading to the eventual result, or even if they have been accurately reported.
What Do We Know? And What Don’t We Know?Long response times, fear of losing a scoop and the existence of a "leak culture" means reporters rarely use online FOI platforms.
We know that delays, non-responsiveness, and the ineffectuality of the appeals process are frequently raised as issues. And the general conclusion from researchers is that, to date, FOI Acts appear to have failed to create a more open culture. We know that even if they lead to better transparency, that doesn't necessarily contribute to greater accountability in government.
For journalists specifically, we know that long response times, fear of losing a scoop (journalists may be reluctant to use online FOI platforms, particularly those sites which publish responses online, for fear of losing a competitive exclusive), and the existence of a “leak culture” means reporters rarely use online FOI platforms.
But, poor take-up of FOI—online or offline—may not only be because of a failure of a website or lack of use of FOI laws…there may simply be other more successful mechanisms for interacting with government. The irony is that FOI is supposed to make government more transparent and accountable, however more intimate relationships acquire their own power dynamics. That is, journalists and CSOs might be able to access information more easily through direct, established links to their contacts in government.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In short, there is little evidence that government performs any better or more accountably as a result of FOI platforms, or that absence of FOI compliance by any channel is much of an indicator of government under-performance. There is evidence of small wins, but these do not amount to any specific, generalizable situations where platforms can lead to accountability. For certain, the platforms studied have many commonalities of experience, as outlined in this report, but it is a small sample and the differences between them are considerable.There is little evidence that government performs any better or more accountably as a result of FOI platforms.
This study is first generation research into the work of a small, young movement. Comparative studies of the use of different FOI channels in parallel are rare and have limited coverage. Further, there are huge research gaps in the experience of FOI officials, and the impact of FOI on public institutions.
We need to understand that causes of “failure” of FOI and how impact or “success” is measured. That is, we need to ask how many FOI requests are made; how many are granted; how many are refused; how many are taken to appeal, and how many appeals are successful. We also don’t know much about who uses FOI tools. There is no evidence base to be able to assess questions about diversity and inclusivity of the users and their perceptions of success. More outreach is needed on the users of FOI platforms, particularly media and non-governmental organizations, as well as a broader cross-section of FOI actors like government departments and lawyers, to better understand how such tools might increase government accountability in general.
And we need to assess long-term impact by examining the broader “transparency to accountability” debate – we need more research on the link between requesting information and corrective action as a result.We simply need more data on accountability, and how we can move beyond transparency itself.
The real impact of FOI is local and personal, so we need to understand how the link between the personal to the public is made, which is where media comes in. A growth in collaborative reporting, and for journalists to use, acknowledge and promote FOI more generally in their work would greatly benefit FOI platforms. But, we also need to examine the complex role that media plays and that while FOI works to its advantage, there may be a case of “too much transparency” for this competitive industry.
Eventually, we simply need more data on the accountability aspect (answerability and enforcement) of transparency and accountability, and how we can move beyond transparency itself.
Savita Bailur is a consultant on development and information and communications technology, working with such groups as the World Bank, Microsoft Research India, and USAID. She has taught at the University of Manchester and London School of Economics, and is co-author/editor of Closing the Feedback Loop: Can Technology Bridge the Accountability Gap.
Tom Longley is a human rights and technology consultant. After graduating in law in 1999, he worked as a war crimes investigator in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. He is an associate at the Tactical Technology Collective, and co- author of the book Visualising Information for Advocacy. His current clients include Global Witness and the Open Society Foundations.