Brussels, 04 October 2007. So, you want to be an investigative journalist? To fight for people’s rights? To humble over-mighty administrations? Or just to play your part in helping to improve democracy? Well, as of today your ambition may have become a little more achievable, thanks to the launch of wobbing.eu.
Wobbing.eu is a new online resource that aims to help journalists and others seeking information from public authorities. It provides an in-depth knowledge base, country by country, on the relevant Freedom of Information (FOI) laws and procedures. It also offers news articles on past and present FOI cases to show how others gained the information they needed, and gives advice on how to handle awkward or recalcitrant public administrations.
Most western countries (including the EU itself) now have fairly well established laws on Freedom of Information and public access to documents. The Netherlands for example has had an FOI law since 1980, and several countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the US and Canada) have even longer established legislation.
Can FOI legislation work?
While the legislation may be familiar, the downside of the FOI story is that the practicalities of obtaining that information often constitute a mini-minefield in themselves. Public authorities across Europe are actively finding ways to block or limit the power of the legislation.
Tactics such as limiting the number of information requests per person to three per year (UK), refusing the requests on the grounds of expense (UK), high cost to supply information (Germany), and more are all too common. Whichever the country, such attempts to avoid answering requests for information all betray the mindset of an administration concerned more with hiding its decisions and activities from citizens, than with fulfilling its obligations to deliver information to which citizens have a right.
Jeremy Dear, General Secretary of the (British and Irish) National Union of Journalists, says that, ‘in general, too much information is classified as secret. The main problem we face is the number of exemptions there are in laws governing freedom of information. National security, commercial confidentiality, etc, are all used to prevent access.’
And he emphasises that, ‘the burden of proof should not rest on the journalist to prove why the information should be released, but on the authority to prove why it should not be.’
Which is where, perhaps, wobbing.eu can help. When faced with blocking or delaying tactics of varying degrees of subtlety, you need to know how to overcome these obstacles to obtain the information you require.
Here the step-by-step explanations of what to do, even when the most secrecy-minded of government administrations is trying to block you, can prove invaluable. The case studies can also offer insights into how to proceed, or you may find your answer in the public fora (these are admittedly awaiting content as this piece went to press).
By journalists for journalists
‘We want to encourage journalists to make use of the legislation,’ says wobbing.eu editor Brigitte Alfter, Brussels correspondent for Danish Daily Information and winner of the US Investigative Reporters and Editors’ Freedom of Information Award 2006.
Her colleague, Danish journalist and media-lawyer Henriette SchjÃ¸th-Vignal concurs, ‘It is very important that journalists use these rules to obtain information. If they don’t, then public administrations will have no incentive to change their traditional mindset of keeping as much as possible secret.’
Roger Vleugels advises numerous Dutch media agencies on how to use the public access laws to gain information. ‘Since the mid-1990s, the number of WOB requests filed in the Netherlands has run at about 1,000 per year,’ he says. ‘Yet the figures vary enormously from country to country. In Belgium and Germany for example, only about 25 requests are filed per year in each country. In the UK the figure reaches 100,000. In the US it is 2.4 million, with over 2,000 per year coming from the Washington Post alone!’
He puts these variations down to different official attitudes to releasing information, attitudes that are very often culturally determined, he says. ‘In the UK for example, ‘the idea of extra-Parliamentary control of government is very strong. NGOs in the UK are very active in using the FOI legislation compared to their counterparts in Belgium and Germany.’
Vleugels agrees on the importance of tactics. ‘How you formulate a request, how you file, etc. Getting the details right can determine the progress of your application. In the Netherlands, often a different approach is required for each Ministry.’
Time can also be an issue, he says. ‘The record for the length of time required to answer a Freedom of Information request is held by the USA. It is a request to the National Security Agency; one which is now outstanding for 19 years, and which is still not decided!’
Certainly, it’s unlikely you’ll meet any editor’s deadline when using FOI requests, he admits. ‘You have to think four, five or six months ahead if you are planning a story.’
What is Wobbing?
‘Wobbing’ comes from the Dutch word for the FOI law, the Wet van Openbaarheid van Bestuur. While sounding strange to English ears, the term has already picked up a fairly wide usage among Dutch-speaking journalists, so much so that ‘to wob’ has become an accepted verb and is even entering the dictionaries.
In addition to basic information on how to make an FOI request, wobbing.eu carries regular news and features on current cases across Europe, thereby hoping to inspire others with the kind of stories that the legislation makes possible. Not least, the people behind wobbing emphasise that it is an interactive site, and with its inbuilt Forum facility is open to questions and contributions of all kinds from across Europe. More information at www.wobbing.eu.
Wobbing.eu is run by the Pascal Decroos Fund, an independent Belgian-Flemish journalism foundation that provides grants to journalists for investigative and special research projects.
© Philip Hunt, 2007