**This article appeared in the 2015 1st Quarter IRE Journal**
BY EMILIA DÍAZ-STRUCK » CENTRAL UNIVERSITY OF VENEZUELA
The lack of information in one country does not mean that the information does not exist. Many times, stories connect with different parts of the world, and searching in other countries could improve the findings. Persons and companies can have investments and lawsuits in different countries, global partnerships as well as cross-border connections. Records, court files and other documents can be found. If they are not available online, it is time to think of crossing borders in a different way and do freedom of information (FOI) requests in other countries.
There are several steps that can be helpful when you decide to include cross-border FOI requests as part of your reporting:
1. PLAN AHEAD
When you start an investigation, do not forget to check its crossborder connections. Often, these connections can come from investments or people’s backgrounds. Just think for a moment if your story includes persons or companies that could have a past or a present in different countries. If so, check online and start planning. FOI requests take time, and in almost every country the legal framework establishes the amount of time it should take to answer a request.
Planning also means knowing what kind of information you are searching for, in which format it can be found and in which countries the information could be available.
2. CHECK THAT THE INFORMATION IS NOT ONLINE
Before doing any information request, verify that it is not available online. Sometimes governments and institutions in different countries have their own search systems for public records. Documents can also be found as PDFs in different languages. It is useful to dig thoroughly online before deciding to continue the FOI adventure.
3. KNOW THE LEGAL FRAMEWORK
A key step before doing a FOI request in any country is to know the legal framework. Many countries in the world have FOI laws. These laws openly establish how the process works in each country: how to address the request, if it is possible to do the request online through a website, if it needs to be sent to a specific institution or if it actually needs to be sent on paper. This varies from country to country.
To check the legal frameworks established in various countries, you can find resources complied by the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) (bit.ly/1yHadEa), including links to freedominfo.org, Access Info-Europe, Right2Info and other organizations around the world that provide manuals and specific information about the laws in various countries or regions.
If you do not find all the information you need on those websites, you can look at local ones. To do this, it is useful to do advanced searches to find the legal framework of the country where the FOI request is going to be done.
If the country does not have an explicit FOI law, you might still be able to request the information. Some countries that do not have FOI laws address public information requests in other laws. For example, you may find it in specific articles of a country’s constitution, which can be quoted while making your request.
In Venezuela, for example, there is no FOI law, but the right is granted through the Constitution. There are four articles that mention that any person has the right to request information to the authorities and the right of free speech, among others. To request public information, a person can write a letter quoting these articles.
It can be useful to get advice from lawyers, colleagues and organizations in countries with no FOI law. They can say if there is any legislation that can support a request, or if not, how information can be requested.
4. UNDERSTAND THE LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
Not everything can be requested and found in English. More than 60 countries have made English their official language, but others have French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, German, Italian, Chinese, Russian, among others, as their official language. This means that some institutions where the official language is not English could be reluctant to answer FOI requests submitted in English. Sometimes you are more likely to get an answer when the request is sent in the country’s official language. If you do not speak the language, ask for help.
After deciding in what language the request is best written, it is also important to understand the country’s culture. Some countries are more formal than others. Some countries will not differentiate between requests from foreigners and nationals; some might be more likely to respond to their nationals, and others to foreign media. It is useful to understand how this works in the country where you need to do the FOI request.
5. KNOW THE ORGANIZATIONAL CHART OF THE INSTITUTION
When you submit the request, you should send it to the right person. Contacting the wrong person could mean never getting an answer. Each country has its own governmental structure and each institution has its own organizational chart. While establishing what information or document you are going to ask for in your FOI request, you will need to know the person inside the institution who should have the information and will be in charge of answering the request.
However, in some countries, only a few people are authorized to talk or answer any request made to an institution. It is important to know whether this is the case, and then address the letter to the head of the organization. Otherwise, the answer you might receive — if you receive any — will be: “I’m not authorized to respond your request. You should send it to …” This restarts the process and more time will be needed to get a positive answer.
6. FIND ORGANIZATIONS AND JOURNALISTS THAT WORK IN OTHER COUNTRIES
A good way to do better FOI requests in other countries is to find a colleague or an organization that works in the country where you are planning the requests. There are special organizations around the world that promote the right to access public information and that have experience doing FOI requests. They are usually open to giving advice on the best ways to do FOI requests in that country, how to write them and how to follow up.
Colleagues in other countries are also a good way to improve the requests. They are used to the country’s culture, the best way to reach organizations or institutions, the time it takes and how to follow up the requests. They also speak the country’s official language, know the legal framework and have probably done FOI requests for their own journalistic pieces. It is useful to contact a colleague, explain what you are doing and ask for their help.
If you do not know a journalist in the country you would like to do the request, you can ask for a reference from organizations like IRE, GIJN, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) and the Press and Society Institute (IPYS), among others.
7. EMBRACE THE CROSS-BORDER SPIRIT
Besides asking for advice, directly involving a colleague in another country in the project also can be useful. If the story has connections in a different country, the possibilities to find more information, access more data, understand the story better and do successful FOI requests could increase when someone from the country is involved in the project. To do this, when you reach your colleague, you can propose the possibility of publishing the angle of their country in their own publication on the same day you will be publishing your story.
A colleague from that other country would know if it is better if a local does the request or if you as a foreigner can do it. The colleague will be the right person to tell you the best way to reach public institutions with FOI requests. And if the agency prefers to respond to nationals, then as your partner in the project, your colleague will be happy to help you with the request. Of course, you should also be helpful with your colleague’s questions and should be willing to share. This will embrace the cross-border spirit of collaboration.
8. WRITE THE REQUEST
With every FOI request, it is important to know:
- What to ask for (be as specific as possible
- To whom you should address the request
- What their contact information is
- How the information is stored and in which format you would like to receive the information
- What legal framework supports your right to ask for public information, so you can quote it in the request
While writing your request, do not forget to include your contact information. If there is no online platform to send the request and you decide to partner with another colleague in a different country, remember that when your partner goes to the public office to leave the request, the office should stamp and date a copy of your request to prove that it was received.
Once the FOI request is submitted, the countdown starts. You should write in your calendar when you should expect an answer according to the time limits established in the legislation. It is useful to do follow-ups to confirm that the request was received and to check on its status. If time passes and the day you were supposed to receive an answer comes with no answer, you can send a second request.
If the response to your request does not come with the right information, or if the request is denied, another request can be sent and the process will start again. If you are going to send another letter, remember to be as specific as possible with your request and send it to the right person. You can always mention the outcome of the request in your final story, even when you do not get a positive one or you did not receive a final answer. It will show that you tried to find more answers and information for your piece.
When you cooperate and get help from an organization or a colleague, do not forget to thank them for all their efforts. Remember to give proper credit, and respect the agreements you made when you started working together on the story. It is always nice to hear a “thank you” from your working partners!
Emilia Díaz-Struck is ICIJ’s research editor. She is a professor of journalism at the Central University of Venezuela and co-founder of the Venezuelan news website Armando.info. Diaz-Struck has been a contributor for The Washington Post and has also written for the magazine Poder y Negocios and Venezuelan newspapers El Universal and El Mundo.