GIJN offers FOI tips and tools


What if all the tip sheets for journalists on using national freedom of information laws were collected in one place?

Well, they are.

The Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) has just launched a new multi-faceted FOI resource page.

To create the page, we boiled the advice down into eight key messages. They apply whether the laws are called freedom of information acts, access to information laws, or right to know acts.

Such laws exist in more than 115 countries and can play a key role in investigatory journalism.

So, GIJN also pulled together regional and national resources to help journalists exercise the international human right to information.

Image: US Department of Justice.

It’s remarkable how many terrific FOI-based stories worldwide churn up in Google searches. Although access to information laws are sometimes viewed as weapons for the media, the main users are in fact businesses, citizens, nongovernmental organizations and academics. Journalists need to use and defend these tools.

To help promote reporters’ use of FOI laws, GIJN has provided examples of investigative articles that relied on documents gained via FOI requests.

FOI tips for reporters

We scoured around for all the tip sheets by FOI experts, brought them together in one place, and looked for the common themes. We found eight:

  1. Plan ahead: Figure out what you want. 
  2. Poke around: Try other avenues. 
  3. Plot: Understand where the information is located. 
  4. Prepare: Learn about the law. 
  5. Pose precise questions (to the right place). 
  6. Play the Game: Following up pays dividends. 
  7. Appeal: Do it. 
  8. Publish: Don’t be shy. 

There’s remarkable universality on the core bits of advice, but also substantial nuance in the guides GIJN collated.

Those with a European focus include “A Guide for Journalists on How to Access Government Information”, part of the Legal Leaks Toolkit prepared by Access Info Europe and the Network for Reporting on Eastern Europe. And “Tips and Tricks” from LoiTransparence.ch, a Swiss association.

Helping tools

GIJN’s list of regional and national resources is designed to orientate journalists to helpful information and tools.

We include links to sites run by NGOs that can assist with the drafting of requests and make it easier to track their progress. Such additional functionality goes beyond the rudimentary requests systems provided by most governments.

Along the way, we’ve discovered that journalists are often the forefronts of creating better access tools.

In Brazil, Achados e Pedidos, recently launched by Abraji and Transparency Brazil is a crowd-sourced repository for FOI requests and answers.

In Norway, the government runs a central system for documents, but not all agencies participate. Tarjei Leer-Salvesen, a journalist at Fædrelandsvennen, together with a coder at the newspaper, developed Innsyn.no, to provide access records held by the police, the defense sector, the public universities and even the Norwegian Church. 

Image: Innsyn.no.

FOI This!

Although using FOI isn’t always easy, and not for the impatient, there are potential rewards, as GIJN tries to show in a new feature called FOIA This!

“Ideas and sources for FOI requests can be found almost anywhere”, according to Matt Burgess, a UK journalist and blogger, has said.

We’ve featured requests of many kinds that could be widely (ahem) copied:

  • Blood transfusions, traffic tickets, drugs in prisons, policy corruption (January 2017)
  • Fishing permits, robberies, football player drug testing, land purchases (March 2017)
  • Credit card use, salaries, cost of police investigations, retirement parties (April 2017)
  • Ransomware: numbers, costs, preparedness (May 2017)
  • Government data (June 2017)

The importance of using access laws has never seemed more important. The Washington Post in 2017 added a motto to its front page: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” 

Image: The Washington Post.

Explore GIJN’s FOI resource page here.

Image: Artform Canada.