Brian Sandford: Shedding some sunlight on the importance of open government
March 10, 2013
Late last year, I realized I was ready to escape the Pacific Northwest’s long rainy seasons after spending nine years there.
I soon found myself considering – and being considered for – two very different job opportunities.
One of them was this job, and it’s obvious how that turned out. The other was at the China Daily in Beijing, where a friend I’d worked with at The News Tribune in Tacoma had moved.
Many elements of that job were appealing; my friend talked about the abundant travel opportunities, close-knit staff, good pay and ample time to see Asia.
China has multiple English-language newspapers. It doesn’t have a Freedom of Information Act, a vital tool enacted here in 1966 that both journalists and the public use to access government documents. The act is aimed at keeping government on the level and accountable, and it protects the checks-and-balances system that’s one of the cornerstones of our democracy.
My friend says journalists at China Daily get a large amount of leeway when it comes to coverage decisions, but he also described with dismay having “Goodbye, Dear Friend” on the front page the day after North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il died. (Perhaps Dennis Rodman, who recently palled around with new North Korean leader Kim Jung-un, was consulted on that headline.)
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The paper had little choice but to write something like that, given the communist government’s ties to North Korea. No newspaper should ever be told what to run on Page A1.
Why bring this up now? Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, a national effort aimed at reminding the public – and journalists – of the importance of open government and protecting people’s right to know.
Sunshine Week began as Sunshine Day in Florida in 2002. Media nationwide began taking part the following year, and it has been growing since. It’s timed to coincide with the birthday of James Madison, who was instrumental in the ratification of the U.S. constitution.
We rely on public records such as criminal histories, court documents, meeting minutes, real estate transactions and government spending reports.
Why is it important to reflect on one of our democracy’s greatest and self-sustaining freedoms – the freedom of information? I’ll let Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association and a former Nevada Appeal editor, answer that.
“Politicians who are confident they are acting in the best interests of their constituents have no problem being open with the public,” he said. “Those with some other agenda – they’re the ones who keep trying to close things down.”
I couldn’t have said it any better myself.
• Editor Brian Sandford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.