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Editorial: Official eagerness to conceal information hinders citizens’ oversight of government

Has a commitment to public access to public information ever been more critical? It’s a pillar of any successful democracy, yet as President Trump works to delegitimize the mainstream news media, the ability of Americans to monitor their government risks eroding. That, alone, makes Sunshine Week especially significant in 2017.

Sunshine Week is sponsored annually by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It is dedicated to celebrating and preserving open government. The importance of an independent press was well described by Thomas Jefferson, who observed in 1787, “… were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

That’s because it is the press that most often calls government to account. While that obligation falls on all citizens, it is the job of the watchdog news media. Without a free and independent press, committed to telling its readers and viewers what their government is doing, information would be hard to obtain and, once obtained, harder to place into an accurate and useful context. That eliminates a crucial restraint on government officials intoxicated with their power.

That’s the risk as Trump paints the media as “the enemy of the people.” If it’s not aimed at making the administration’s version of events the only one Americans seek out, then that’s at least the risk, anyway, and it flies in the face of open and accountable government.

Of course, it’s not just Washington that needs to be monitored. Open government is just as important in the state capitols and in every county, city, town and village hall, where the actions of officeholders may have the most direct impact on residents. Too often, those officials twist laws requiring open records to hinder rather than facilitate access to information that is undeniably public.

Buffalo City Hall is in the midst of such an obstruction as it refuses to release a videotape showing what has been described as a “brutal” assault by a jail guard on an inmate. The city is withholding the tape. In court, a city lawyer argued – unpersuasively – that the video constituted a personnel matter that must, by law, remain secret. The judge ignored that argument, but decided to withhold the tape because he said releasing it would make it hard to pick an unbiased jury in the criminal case.

But history shows that it is virtually never impossible to pick a fair jury. Publicity may make the task a more protracted effort, but that’s a fair trade. Releasing the tape would honor the public’s right to know what went on at the jail it owns while doing nothing to endanger the defendant’s constitutional rights.

This is the kind of fight the public – and, in its name, the news media – always has to be prepared to undertake. It’s why The Buffalo News sued – unsuccessfully, so far – to see the jailhouse video.
Governments like to keep secrets. Sometimes that may be justified – for example, when negotiating treaties or, on a local level, when seeking to purchase land. Sometimes, it may be in the mistaken belief that it is necessary. The city jail case may – may – fall into that category.

Often, though, the thirst for secrecy is about controlling what voters know about the people they elected. It’s about preserving power by limiting public knowledge. If a government can drag out a Freedom of Information request, the interest in it may wane or, as in the jailhouse video, a judge may buy a demonstrably false argument.

Similarly, if a president can delegitimize the entire news media, he may be able to free himself from oversight and accountability, especially when Congress is controlled by his party. That’s not good, regardless of which party holds the White House.

Open meetings and records laws help to prevent that kind of abuse, practiced too often by too many officeholders. That’s the beating heart of Sunshine Week: an acknowledgment of what democracy needs and what is always, and increasingly, at risk.

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