In many countries, government or private sector information is kept away from the public, shrouded in Official Secrets Acts, anti-terrorism laws or plain inertia on the part of public officials. It took seven years before several European governments finally opened up access to information on about state subsidies for businesses in 2007. This laxity was the result of committed journalists in six countries coming together to go through years of court cases to have the information released. The work paid off: 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 taxpayer money to subsidise their already highly profitable enterprises.

If you live in a country with such laws, or one with the Official Secrets Act still in operation, the odds might be stacked against you. You may be further frustrated by civil servants who may delay giving you information, or worse, hand it over in exchange for money. How do you avoid paying for documents if there is no other way of getting the information that you need? The long, hard way is to push for more freedom of information laws. If your country has Freedom of Information (FoI) laws, the following principles should guide your attempts to access information:

  • > Find out what has been published in semi-official or specialist texts on the subject, and establish rapport with an inside source who would let you see the relevant documents.
  • > Always check whether the information is already out there. Published papers with limited circulation 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 sources early.
  • > Make precise requests for named (or numbered) documents. Asking for ‘everything you’ve got’ on a subject only gives officials an excuse to ignore or delay the process.
  • > Document your requests and the responses you receive carefully. You may need these records to prove that the authorities are deliberately flouting FoI laws and may have something to hide.