WASHINGTON - In a time when the media frequently comes under attack, supporters of freedom of the press say defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more important than ever.
This is Sunshine Week, an annual initiative celebrating the crucial need for access to information to ensure government transparency and accountability. Danielle McLean, chair of the Freedom of Information Committee at the Society of Professional Journalists, said reporters are defenders of democracy, but in the current political climate their role often is diminished. "Free press is essential in terms of telling the truth and allowing people to know exactly what's happening," McLean said. "And it's essential that everybody has a voice and that everybody is represented. That's the job of the news. We're here to help democracy."
McLean said the Freedom of Information Act is a crucial tool for journalists who need access to public records and documents to ensure they have the whole story. But, she noted, too often requests for public records take years to fulfill, and sometimes even require legal action. The Department of Justice last year announced a crackdown on intelligence officers who reveal classified information to the public and the news organizations that report it. Legal counsel for the American Society of News Editors, Kevin Goldberg, said whistleblowers are a vital source when information cannot be accessed through traditional channels. "We want to make it safe for whistleblowers to feel as though they can come forward and tell the whole truth without fear of retaliation, without fear of retribution," Goldberg said; "without fear of putting a reporter in a bad position where they have to uncomfortable decisions as to the extent to which they're protected."
Goldberg contends the public deserves to know when there are abuses of power, serious wrongdoing or possible threats to health and safety. And he added it's not just government that journalists work to keep accountable. "It's about the roads you drive on, the foods you eat, the restaurants you like to frequent. It's everything," he said. "You could literally look through a day's paper, in the local pages, and find something that was written relying on public records law." The Society of Professional Journalists and the Government Accountability Project are launching The Whistleblower Project to shed light on the work of whistleblowers and ensure they and the journalists they work with are protected and supported.