Trib Sunshine Week 2018 editorial: Rising censorship sheds less light on Washington

March 29, 2018 GMT

Records on Freedom of Information Act requests for fiscal year 2017, which ended Sept. 30, were released shortly before Sunshine Week 2018, which celebrates the media’s watchdog role, the people’s right to know and public-access laws such as FOIA. Unfortunately, an Associated Press analysis of those records shows that the federal government increasingly doesn’t provide what FOIA requesters are seeking.

Only about one in five got everything they sought. Requesters “received censored files or nothing in 78 percent of 823,222 requests, a record over the past decade.” In a little more than half of cases where the government provided nothing, it claimed it could find no related information — and such cases were up 18 percent over the previous year.

Cases where the government withheld requested information, claiming its release would be illegal — FOIA exceptions include national-security, personal-privacy and business-secret concerns — nearly doubled. In almost two-thirds of cases where requesters received something, the government censored documents. And when requesters challenged denials, the government reversed itself more than a third of the time — while spending $40.6 million on legal fees.

What the AP analyzed includes records from eight months of the Trump administration. Hopefully, what the AP found isn’t indicative of an anti-transparency trend under this president — which would only make holding Washington accountable harder for the American people.