By Arshad Dogar
A number of people ask me about the difference between journalism in America compared to Pakistan.
A major difference is the U.S. system of open records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). enacted in 1966.
Every citizen including journalists can seek records of federal departments – and except for specific exceptions – usually get them.
I believe that the system of open records helps improve governance through transparency. It also helps eliminate corruption as well as nepotism from government.
I am not saying that it is so easy in the U.S. to get every kind of data. There is a lot of discussion over delays and refusals in providing records. However, the good thing is that you can appeal in the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy. Any citizen can also knock on the doors of a federal court if a positive response from lower level is not forthcoming.
Six months ago, the court reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette made a request to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for its annual budget for confidential informants. The DEA refused to provide budget details. The reporter appealed to the Department of Justice under FOIA. He recently won the case. The budget is a public document and its analysis will help the reporter’s story.
What will be the outcome? I believe it will help the government to improve weaknesses in its system.
Most government departments in America have started posting their data on spreadsheets on their public websites. This allows journalists to produce very good stories within a very short time. This practice has helped the government at federal and state level to improve infrastructure, legislation and to bring reforms in the society.
Data journalism has become the need of the hour for media people in America. Investigative Reporters and Editors has been playing a pivotal role in training journalists and motivating them to do innovative projects.
On the other hand, Pakistan introduced a Freedom of Information Ordinance in 2002. Implementation is still a far away dream. Most of the public records remain out of the reach, even from journalists. This results in increasing corruption, nepotism, and constant failures of government.
Journalists strive to get public documents but most of the time departments refuse to provide records. The judicial system is so slow that an appeal for the right to information can take years. And if some journalist does become successful in obtaining some public documents, he could be threatened with dire consequences.
Journalists and civil society can play vital roles in bringing reforms in the society – but only if they are provided with official data and records.