10th Anniversary Interview with Knight’s Eric Newton

On the 10th anniversary of OpenTheGovernment.org, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation Eric Newton gave the following interview to OTG. 

1.What led you to support the coalition at its founding?

After the 9-11 attacks, the federal government rolled back freedom. Public information started vanishing. Suddenly Americans could not get 30-year-old maps of Africa from the National Archives. Chemical plants that pollute were no longer listed in public. Hundreds of documents were removed from government web sites. Time after time, officials ignored public information law, saying that somehow the documents could help terrorists. Newspapers reported the new censorship.  But nothing was changing. Public support for the First Amendment  fell sharply after 9-11.  People who argued for openness laws to be honored were accused of being un-American.

Knight Foundation launched a Press Freedom and Freedom of Information initiative that included creating and endowing  Sunshine Week with the American Society of News Editors and many others; expanding the National Freedom of Information Coalition with the help of the Associated Press; starting national FOI “audits” by the National Security Archive, strengthening the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and several other grants. The creation of OpenTheGovernment.org was part of that initiative. Many organizations believed the government should obey its own public information laws. But there wasn’t a coordinating group to help them act together. Secrecy advocates were united by 9-11. We hoped OpenTheGovernment.org would unite openness advocates, and it did.

2.What successes did you see during your support of the coalition?

First, the group worked to stop the erosion of society’s belief in freedom. Recently it has pushed for what it calls “strategies for improving” freedom of information through the FOIA Implementation and Oversight Act. The coalition has grown from 30 organizations to more than 80 and has developed a community of openness supporters nationally.  These organizations and citizens don’t have the ability individually to track all that goes on in the federal government involving freedom of information. While they still speak out individually, OpenTheGovernment.org has added the “collective voice.”  In a way, these are the same things that have made Sunshine Week a success: working together and arguing that freedom of information applies to everyone.

3.      Why is OTG important going forward?

Back in the 1960s, the United States was much admired by free nations for its freedom of information laws. As it turned out, they were not self-policing. This was never more apparent than when the current president, on his first day in office in 2009, signed a presidential order instructing federal agencies to “usher in a new era of self-government.” But Knight Open Government Surveys in 2010 and 2011 showed painfully slow progress. Presidents can easily close government. Opening it is hard. The founders of this nation warned that every generation would need to fight anew to keep what they had created. Left to themselves, most governments become ever more secretive. Only through the kind of open debate advanced by OpenTheGovernment.org and experimenting with new ideas such as the Open Data Institute does open government have a future.

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