Open government: The battle never ends

All governments share a common temptation: to use their power to evade accountability. Several police officers proved it again last week in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the middle of heated demonstrations over the shooting of Michael Brown, two reporters – one from the Washington Post – got roughed up and arrested without cause by officers at a McDonald’s restaurant. The officers may have been set off by Post reporter’s refusal to stop filming them with a video camera. They were certainly set off by the journalists’ presence.

It doesn’t get more black and white: Police slamming citizens around and handcuffing them for recording police behavior. In America, no less – where freedom of the press was written into the First Amendment precisely to guarantee journalists’ right to monitor government.

Most countries have no First Amendment to counter the authoritarian impulse to smash the keyboards and break the cameras. Journalists are routinely injured and sometimes killed in parts of Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Thirty-one were murdered in 2013; another seven have been murdered so far this year.

In most cases, they were killed to punish them for reporting on corruption. On Tuesday, for example, broadcaster Luis Carlos Cervantes Solano was gunned down in Colombia after years of exposing wrongdoing by local officials and gang bosses. The day before, a Mexican reporter, Octavio Rojas Hernandez, was shot to death in front of his home after his newspaper reported links between the local police chief and a ring of gasoline thieves.

Reporting on government is far less dangerous in the United States, thankfully. But people in possession of power in this country, however genteel, have the same impulse to keep the doors shut.

The Obama administration has been disappointingly opaque despite the president’s pledge, the day after his inauguration, to create “an unprecedented level of openness in government.”

Big stuff – like the way IRS hard drives went missing during a furor over its director’s suspected partisanship – gets the attention. But the accumulation of small abuses can have a bigger impact.

A week ago, the Society of Professional Journalists and 37 other advocacy groups documented numerous tactics the administration has used to squeeze the flow of information to the public. A common practice – in D.C. and here in Washington – is to prevent journalists from talking to agency staff.

“Journalists are reporting that most federal agencies prohibit their employees from communicating with the press unless the bosses have public relations staffers sitting in on the conversations. …

“Meanwhile, agency personnel are free to speak to others – lobbyists, special-interest representatives, people with money – without these controls and without public oversight.”

Public access to information can be throttled in dozens of other ways without overt violence. The battle for oversight must continue as long as the powerful fight to escape it. In other words, forever.