**This article appeared in the Winter 2012 IRE Journal**
By Martha Mendoza, The Associated Press
My freedom of information lesson at The Associated Press Mexico City bureau was not going well.
Everyone kept inexplicably cracking up.
MISTAKE #1. It ends up that “FOIA” sounds remarkably close to a vulgar f-word in Spanish.
Also, because Mexico actually has a very effective freedom of information law, I was neither impressing nor informing anyone with my high-minded lecture.
Well, what about other countries? I wondered.
A quick count found 105 countries with legal promises of transparency, either FOI laws or constitutional provisions, most introduced in the past five or six years. Transparency is now being tied to foreign aid, and there are strong grassroots movements, boosted by WikiLeaks revelations, pressing for it as well. By the end of 2010, governments had made access to information a legal right for 85 percent of people in the world.
“So … let’s hold them accountable!” I pitched to my editors.
It was a wild idea, the first worldwide test of FOI. But AP is a strong advocate for freedom of information, and its reporters in the U.S. routinely use right-to-know laws. With professional journalists all around the world, we were perfectly positioned to pull this off.
John Daniszewski, AP’s vice president and senior managing editor for international news, was enthusiastic, with consummately cheerful International Enterprise Editor Mary Rajkumar taking on the heavy lifting.
She had no clue.
I had no clue.
What happened next was overwhelming, exhilarating and in the end extremely rewarding. It was more time-consuming and complicated than we had anticipated, eventually involving more than 140 AP journalists, some for weeks at a time. Don’t try this alone.
We started by brainstorming: What to request? We conferred with regional editors, who turned to reporters around the world. I also grilled everyone from my running partner and my kids to university professors and policy makers in medicine, criminal justice and environmental issues.
MISTAKE #2: If I had spent more time brainstorming, our questions would have been more streamlined and clear. I set up one-time chats with experts, where I explained what we were doing in an email and then asked them if they had any ideas. In hindsight, I should have followed up a week later, sharing our ideas and allowing theirs to percolate.
Within a few weeks we had an aha moment. The 10-year anniversary of 9/11 was approaching. Why not take the first look at the impact of the global war on terror? Until then, no one had tracked how many people had been arrested – and how many convicted – as terrorists in the past decade, when almost every country had adopted terrorism legislation.
We framed our questions, consulting with FOI experts and researchers who had written extensively on government transparency. Our greatest asset was AP’s own FOI lawyer, Karen Kaiser, with whom we narrowed down exactly what to ask for, troubleshooting for possible pitfalls that could result in rejections or stonewalling.
Regional editors in London, Cairo, Bangkok and Mexico City identified country-by-country which of AP’s 3,000 reporters would work with us. We asked these reporters to describe how to file a FOI request in their countries and to figure out which agencies would have information and data about terrorism prosecutions. This was more than just prep work: in the end, we were able to publish country-by-country guides on how to file FOI requests.
Our News Information Research Center built a Sharepoint site where we listed countries, editors, reporters, the year FOI was adopted, links to laws and more details. (Sharepoint is great software for collaborating with colleagues on projects. It creates a password-protected website where all members can post and manage documents, add to spreadsheets and share information.) This proved to be invaluable as a central place for gathering all information and building our spreadsheets.
MISTAKE #3. I gave reporters the option of entering their information in Sharepoint or sending me the information. Unfamiliar with the software, incredibly busy with breaking news and in some cases unsteady with English, most colleagues opted to send everything straight to me. I missed a teaching opportunity and bogged myself down with uploading data.
During the last week of January AP reporters around the world requested answers to the same six questions in 105 countries and the European Union. We hand-delivered letters in Liberia, logged into a website in Mexico, picked up the phone in Portugal and sent a certified letter in Japan. A few hiccups: Some countries require requesters first to try to get the information without a legal FOI request, and some countries require requesters to be citizens.
MISTAKE #4. In some countries, the requests went to just one agency; in others they went to more than six. Our spreadsheet didn’t break down a country agency by agency, so if one agency responded but others didn’t, a country was still marked as “responsive.”
With FOls filed, we began looking for people behind the numbers. But the data from the FOI responses was arriving in a trickle. Surprisingly, the quickest and most responsive governments tended to be in smaller, less-developed countries like Guatemala and Georgia. In one country after another, officials begged off, saying there was no way to provide the information we sought. But AP reporters kept pressing. In Uganda, for example, the director of anti-terrorism, the spokesman of the judiciary and the police spokesman all said they had no figures, but our stringer found the data with a court clerk in Kampala. In Pakistan, a police inspector earning his doctorate in criminal justice pointed me to the data.
To fill in the blanks, we interviewed convicted terrorists, victims and prosecutors. I surveyed local crime data and government repositories and dug through reports at the U.N. and U.S. State Department. The Statistical Assessment Service at George Mason University (http://stats.org) reviewed our data and gave advice about how to analyze, compare, spot trends and avoid misinterpreting the numbers.
We built several databases. One of them showed country-by-country how many people had been arrested and how many convicted of terrorism year by year. A second database focused on how many days it took for responses and in what category the responses fit (i.e. useful, non-responsive, etc.). Other columns included how many days each country allowed for a response and how late each country was. We would eventually publish all of this on DocumentCloud.
MISTAKE #5. Iviany countries responded with an acknowledgment of receipt of our questions and nothing more, I was categorizing these countries in a self-made methodology that didn’t allow for this response, it turned out this wheel had been invented: Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheCovernment.org, shared the standardized response categories used by most EOi researchers, and we shifted ours to those.
On Sept. 4, 2011, we published the first part, “Convicted for Terror.” We reported that in the first tally of global terror prosecutions ever done, at least 35,000 people had been convicted and almost 120,000 arrested as terrorists over the preceding decade. And while some had bombed hotels or blew up buses, others had been thrown into jail for waving a sign or blogging about a protest.
Two months later we published “Access Denied,” in which we reported that in the first worldwide test of freedom of information laws, we found that more than half the countries with such laws do not follow them. New democracies are better at responding than older ones – including the United States, which responded late and only partially.
MISTAKE #6. We didn’t brand the package well enough at first. Part one went out with about a dozen sidebars but no indication to readers that they had anything to do with each other. When part two was published two months later, we finally put them all in one place.
There were several unusual aspects to this project. For the first time, AP made a Facebook page (http://on.fb.me/rVJli6) for the project, which put everything in one place – stories, interactives, photos, video and more. We also made every document from every country available on DocumentCloud, along with our request letters, spreadsheets and methodology.
We compiled the first centralized website for people around the world to find a link to their own FOI legislation (http://apne.ws/ S4CLOG), including an explanation of how to file a request. And we invited readers to join in the conversation by suggesting what the AP might want to request next via FOI in any country. Satbir Sharma holds up a government Right to Information response regarding an embezzlement scheme in his village, Chandrawal, India. The Sharmas say that his wife was killed and his father’s leg broken after they filed a corruption case.
The projects ran on dozens of front pages and were featured on thousands of websites. We had thousands of responses to the stories online.
The British House of Commons Library made an urgent request for the entire terrorism package, saying AP’s decision to post ail its data “has been very helpful.” The State Department and the U.N. also requested all of the material.
Henri-Christin Longendja, who directs Congo’s Committee for Human Rights and Development, said AP’s findings were helping his campaign to push parliament to vote for open government: “This is what we need to help.”
In the end, well … actually, we’ve decided to keep going. So many great suggestions came to our Facebook site that we’re going ahead and making requests on behalf of those readers. We’re testing Nigeria’s new law, as suggested. And we’re even looking at some of the slightly offbeat suggestions, like the one from a reader who asked us to find out what really happened to Marilyn Monroe.
We’re going for it, appealing the exemptions on the FBI’s heavily redacted file to get to the bottom of the Marilyn Monroe mystery. What the FOIA!
Martha Mendoza is a national writer for The Associated Press.