By Kelley Shannon
Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas
As Ukrainians fight and die for democracy, Russia is arresting its own citizens who are protesting the war and threatening prison for journalists who report the truth.
The attempt to crush a democratic government and stop the flow of information comes as American news organizations and transparency advocates observe Sunshine Week from March 13-19, a time for highlighting government openness and a free press.
Certainly, let’s commemorate the freedom of information we enjoy – and constantly strive to improve – in the United States. But it’s imperative to contrast it with what’s happening around the world and understand how devastating it is when a government allows only its own tightly controlled version of events to trickle out.
Earlier this month, Vladimir Putin’s government changed its domestic media laws to make it a crime to distribute what it deemed to be “false news” about the war. Doing so could mean up to 15 years behind bars. Many news organizations pulled journalists out of the country or shut their operations; the government also cut off access to major social media sites, the Neiman Journalism Lab reported in its thorough rundown on the severe restrictions.
The censorship amounts to an “information dark age,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which called on journalists everywhere to stand in opposition.
Thwarting free speech isn’t only happening in Russia. We simply need to think back to the Olympics a few weeks ago to remember the spotlight on China’s crackdowns on dissent and free expression and its control of internet content. And, of course, there are other examples.
It’s astounding – and a lesson for us all.
Blocking information is a favorite weapon of authoritarian regimes. Information is essential for democracy to flourish. The ability to examine public records and tune in to independent news sources enables us to speak out and hold our leaders accountable.
In our state, we are fortunate that the Texas Public Information Act, originally known as the Open Records Act, was established in the early 1970s to ensure citizens have the right to watch over government. It gives us the ability to obtain public documents and largely forces state and local officials who want to withhold information to argue to the attorney general’s office – an umpire, of sorts – as to why information should be kept secret. The law presumes all records are open unless a specific exemption in law states otherwise.
In short, the Texas law is intended to give an advantage to the individual information requestor, not the government, unlike some states’ information laws.
Public officials are only the custodians of our public records. They do not get to tell us what information we have a right to view. Texans want to see basic police reports, documents relating to a local school district’s property purchase and a state university’s athletics consulting contract. That’s just a small sampling of how our state’s Public Information Act is used.
The law is not perfect. There has been incremental weakening of it over the years, but open government supporters work every legislative session with lawmakers of both political parties to strengthen the act. We should fight with all our might to protect it.
In the end, in a democracy, the people get to judge their leaders and decide whether they will remain in office or get voted out. The free flow of information is the people’s path to questioning authority. That, ultimately, is real power.
Kelley Shannon is executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, based in Austin. For more information go to www.foift.org.