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#FOIAFriday: International FOIA tips and resources

Requesting data or documents from another country can be a confusing and challenging task. What kinds of records are available? Who do you contact about them? Which laws govern their release?

For #FOIAFriday this week we put together a roundup of some of our favorite resources on international records requests. If you have foreign FOIA resources that aren’t included on this list, we’d love to hear about them. Tweet us @IRE_NICAR with #FOIAFriday and we’ll add new ideas to the list.


First, some not-so-fun facts: 

In ranking the strength of FOI laws, Access Info Europe and the Centre for Law and Democracy place the United States at No. 45 in the world. That’s behind such countries as Uganda, Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Mexico’s law ranks eighth.

David Cuillier of the University of Arizona School of Journalism wrote about what the US could learn from other countries in a 2015 issue of the IRE Journal. We’ve uploaded his column, and you can read it here.


General tips

The Data Journalism Handbook has some great tips on general FOIA requesting, but many specifically address access to international records. Some of our favorites include:

  • Check with the embassy. You can sometimes send the request to the embassy and they should transfer it to the competent public body.
  • Ask about organizations exempt from FOI laws. You may wish to find out about NGOs, private companies, or other organizations that are not required to release documents. But it’s possible to find information about them by asking public bodies covered by FOI laws if they’ve funded or dealt with the organization.
  • Know your rights. Most freedom of information laws provide a time limit for authorities to reply to you. Globally, the range in most laws is from a few days to one month.


Foreign FOI: How to request records in another country (2015)

Emilia Díaz-Struck of Central University of Venezuela offers nine detailed tips for cross-border FOIA requests. These include deciding which language to write your request in, finding the right person to contact and getting help from journalists in other countries.


Global FOI: AP tests laws in 105 countries (2012)

This is an older article, but it still provides instructive lessons on requesting international records. The AP's Martha Mendoza writes about six mistakes she encountered during the AP’s worldwide test of FOI. If your records request involves working with multiple people (or newsrooms), this is a must-read.


100+ tips and tools for news research* (2014)

This tipsheet by Margot Williams contains dozens of links for databases, finding people, accessing different types of information like data, non-profits, corporations and more.


Country-specific information

Global Right to Information Rating: Get detailed information on the right-to-access laws of 102 countries courtesy of Access Info Europe and Centre for Law and Democracy. Each country is broken down into 61 different categories, showing what’s open, how to request, timelines to fulfill, etc.


The Global Investigative Journalism Network has a great roundup of resources on freedom of information laws, broken down by country.


Beyond Narco Tunnels: Investigating along the U.S.–Mexico border (2015)

With America’s heightened focus on the U.S.-Mexico border and politicians’ calls to “secure it,” it might be time to ask, how can journalists get better stories about the border, and why should they improve their coverage of it? Celeste González de Bustamante of the Border Journalism Network provides 10 tips.


Investigating along US-Mexico border* (2010)

The AP’s Martha Mendoza offers tips for requesting records from and about Mexico. She lists a few favorite U.S. and Mexican agencies to FOIA when investigating the border and explains what to ask for.


Overview of the Mexican Freedom of Information Act* (2013)

This tip-sheet by Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab discusses the right to information under Mexican law, as well as how to gain access to information for reporting purposes.



Several IRE Conference panels have addressed this issue. IRE members can access the following recordings:


* Denotes resources behind IRE’s member wall

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