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CHANGES TO FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT RATIFIED

President George W. Bush has signed into law amendments to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that improve public access to federal government information. But his move comes "so late in an administration that has shown little respect" for freedom of information, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

On 31 December, Bush ratified changes to the FOIA that require federal agencies to provide information within 20 days unless it entails a major national security risk.

The amendments, which were approved unanimously by Congress, set up a hotline for requests for information, establish a tracking system for requests once they have been made and create an office to mediate disputes.

They also reinforce a requirement that federal agencies meet a 20-day deadline for responding to requests, facilitate the recovery of legal fees by those forced to sue for access to information, and give a broad definition of journalists, who can access information free of charge.

"This is unquestionably a major step forward, albeit belated, one that promotes more transparency and control of the government's activities by its citizens," RSF says. "We should nonetheless not forget how transparency and freedoms were suppressed after 9/11."

The amendments come just weeks after it emerged that the CIA destroyed videos of terrorism suspects being interrogated, some of them in Guantanamo, that had been requested as evidence in court. The destruction of the videos has since become the subject of a criminal investigation.

Congress has come up against the current's administration's culture of secrecy before. In October 2007, the House of Representatives passed the Free Flow of Information Act, a federal shield law that provides federal protection for the confidentiality of journalists' sources.

Visit these links:
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=24956
- "IFEX Communiqué" on Free Flow of Information Act: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/87196/
(8 January 2008)

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