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Freedom of Information, Journalism and Libraries
1 Introduction
2 The principle of freedom of information
3 The legislative practice of freedom of information
4 Libraries and freedom of information
5 Journalism
6 Ethical difficulties of journalists
7 Conclusion
* References
tulosta Printable version
In principle, journalism certainly shares most or all of the values suggested in the above with librarianship and other professions which contribute to the knowledge society. Of course, some journalism seeks simply to entertain, and on an everyday basis, much journalism is passive. Journalists rewrite press releases and news agency material, they cover regular events in a standardised form, they report the content of briefings and leaks. We have all seen journalists flock to pre-arranged events, push microphones under people’s noses and ask them ‘How do you feel?’ as if a worthwhile answer to such a stupid question was possible.

However, two particular faces of journalistic activity do have a considerable relevance to the freedom of information concept. At one extreme there is the concern, generally frivolous and indeed often prurient, with the exposure of the private life of individuals, usually those who are already famous, but occasionally those who are to most intents and purposes anonymous, ordinary citizens. This is a difficult area. Looked at merely in terms of freedom of information it is clearly as legitimate as any other form of journalism. However, most countries have some form or other of privacy protection legislation that moderates the full force of freedom of information in these cases.

At the other extreme, there is investigative journalism, a professional activity that shares in full the goals implied by freedom of information. Investigative journalists seek to exercise freedom of expression and in doing so, set free information that would otherwise be concealed. In particular, they expose questionable official, corporate and sometimes personal conduct to public attention and criticism. The investigative reporter is expected to follow an issue like a detective, reviewing existing evidence in a critical manner, conducting interviews, and seeking fresh evidence and documentation of kinds that it may be very hard to identify in the first place, and equally hard to access once identified. This kind of work flourishes where the press and other media operate in independence of the state apparatus, and where the system sets out to ensure that commercial, political or other interests do not monopolize communication.

At the same time, very great courage is needed to practice investigative journalism in political systems where such conditions do not apply and the global roll call of those who have died in pursuit of their profession is long. Journalists have not only to protect themselves from those their investigations might offend, they also need to protect those who inform them. Those informants, plus assistants and supporters form a kind of team that might include ‘editors, legal specialists, statistical analysts, librarians, and news researchers’ (Waisbord, 2001).

If we were to think about the types of legislative support that are needed by investigative journalism, freedom of information laws to give them access to official documentation, and some form of protection for their unofficial sources, might rank most highly. On the protection of sources, a rare example of legislation to assist with this is the UK Public Interest Disclosure Act 1999. It is considered a particularly good example of such laws, which is quite remarkable given the justifiably sceptical view taken of Britain as a freedom of information environment. It offers protection for the so-called ‘whistleblowers’: brave individuals who challenge the suppression of information by the system, often at considerable personal risk. An important point about this Act is its title: whether a disclosure of information is in the ‘public interest’ is the key test of whether investigation-based news stories are justified. It is quite clear that even librarians might on occasion be faced with the dilemma as to whether to reveal information that could damage their employing organisation. In such cases they have to apply the same ‘public interest test’ that other informants might apply, and which would be deliberated in the courts of an open democratic country.

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