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In many countries, government or private sector information is kept away from the public, shrouded in Official Secrets Acts, Terrorism Acts or simple unwillingness of public officials. It took seven years, from 2000 to 2007, before a number of European governments finally succumbed to freedom of information pressure on the issue of business subsidies. In order for the European public to find out where state subsidies for businesses were going, committed journalists in six countries had to work together and sort through court cases to secure the release of the information. The results were more than worth it: The list of main recipients of state subsidies turned out to be headed by captains of industry and members of royal families. They, rather than small or struggling businesses, had received millions of pounds and Euros of tax-payer money to subsidise their already highly profitable enterprises.

Open-record laws exist in almost all countries, but it remains a struggle to use those laws effectively. Journalists will always have to work hard to get the information they need. A law only means that a door can be opened; you still have to find your way to the door and knock until it actually opens. And you need to understand relevant laws in detail to do that.

If you live in a country that does not have open records law and are possibly still plagued by the existence of an Official Secrets Act, you probably struggle every day to get any public or private sector information at all. You may be further frustrated by civil servants who will only give you documents in exchange for money, knowing that you will not otherwise be able to access them. How do you avoid paying for documents if there is no other way of getting the information that we need? The long, hard way is struggling through access to information legislation and practice. If your country does have Freedom of Information (FoI) laws, the following general principles should guide your attempts to access information:

  • >   Find out what has been published in semi-official or specialist contexts on the subject, and try to find a mole that will let you see relevant documents.
  • >   Always check first whether the information is already 'out there'. Limited-circulation published papers sometimes contain summaries and even extracts from supposedly secret documents.
  • >   Use FoI provisions as a last resort. If you can demonstrate that you have genuinely tried every other channel, this strengthens your case for demanding the document.
  • >   Plan ahead: FoI procedures can be slow, and you are very unlikely to get a document you need by tomorrow. Therefore, identify and approach the right information-holders.
  • >   Make precise requests for named (or numbered) documents. Asking for ‘everything you've got on...’ will not get results.
  • >   Document your requests and the responses you receive very carefully. You may need these records to prove that the authorities are deliberately flouting FoI laws and may have something to hide.