The Scottish Information Commissioner - It's Public Knowledge
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Journalists expected to take advantage of new information rights.

NEWS RELEASE - Issued 9th September, 2004

Journalists expected to take advantage of new information rights

The Scottish Information Commissioner will tell the Annual Conference of the Society of Editors in Edinburgh on Friday 24th September 2004 that he expects journalists to be prominent users of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act when it comes into force in January 2005.

He will point to evidence from countries around the world which already have "right to know" legislation, which shows that requests from journalists working for newspapers, radio and TV account for up to 15% of freedom of information requests.

Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, will tell the conference:

"The freedom of information Act is groundbreaking. It strikes at the heart of a culture of secrecy in public affairs which dates back at least 90 years. It removes the discretion often exercised by public servants to release or withhold information depending on who you are and how you intend to use it. It will provide the press, campaigning organisations and researchers, as well as ordinary citizens, with access to information which would otherwise have been withheld under the old "need to know" basis.

"The information secured may be destined for headlines and generate heated public debate. It may be that such headlines are overblown. Politicians may believe the intent is to politically embarrass them. Public officials may fear that financial or technical details will be misinterpreted. If they have such concerns then the answer is for them to provide a full justification, an official interpretation, and to place the information in context. From the 1st January 2005, the response can no longer be to ignore or simply refuse the request."

The Commissioner will point out that, although in recent years access to official information has improved under voluntary codes of practice, the importance of the new legislation is to enshrine a right to be given information held by Scottish public authorities. However, the Scottish Freedom of Information Act, in common with similar legislation elsewhere in the world, sets out certain exemptions which may allow information to be withheld e.g. if the release would breach a trade secret, or prejudice substantially the detection of a crime. Under the act the Scottish Information Commissioner determines appeals against the decision of Scottish authorities to withhold information.

Kevin Dunion added:

"There will be justifiable reasons for not providing the information requested. It may simply not be held, it may be grossly expensive to collate, or it may not be in the public interests to release. The point is that the press, and indeed people generally, do not have to justify why they are asking for it. Rather it is up the authorities to justify why they will not supply it. I fully expect journalists to use their right of appeal, as they frequently do in other countries with similar right to know laws. However I expect them to do so sensibly, not as a matter of course but only if they disagree with the public authorities reasons for withholding."

Ends

For further information contact Claire Sigsworth or Paul Mutch on 01334 464610.

Notes for Editors:

About the event

  • The Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, is addressing the Annual Conference of the Society of Editors in Malmaison Hotel, Leith, Edinburgh at 10.00 on Friday 10th September

About usage of similar legislation by journalists around the world

  • IRELAND : journalists account for 13% of all Freedom of Information requests [SOURCE: Office of the Information Commissioner Annual Report 2003, http://www.oic.gov.ie/260e_3c2.htm]
  • NEW ZEALAND : the media account for 15% of all complaints to the Ombudsman under the Official Information Act 1982 [SOURCE: Office of the Ombudsman Annual Report 2002-2003, http://www.ombudsmen.govt.nz/download/Annual Report/AR2002-2003.pdf]
  • UNITED STATES :  the media account for between 5% and 8% of requests under the Freedom of Information Act 1966 [SOURCE: P Birkenshaw, Freedom of Information (3rd Edn, 2001)]

About the legislation and the Scottish Information Commissioner

  • The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 provides a statutory right of access to all information held by Scottish public authorities. This right comes into effect on 1st January 2005.
  • From 1st January, information can only be withheld by a public authority if it falls under one of the exemptions listed in the Act. Exemptions include where the information may prejudice national security or defence, or where the release is prohibited by another piece of legislation.
  • If an individual believes an authority is wrong to withhold information, they ultimately have a right of appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner, who can force release.
  • Kevin Dunion is the first Scottish Information Commissioner; promoting freedom of information for everyone in Scotland.
  • The Scottish Information Commissioner is a fully independent public official, appointed by the Queen on 24 February 2003 on the nomination of the Scottish Parliament.
  • His duties and powers are to ensure that people get the information from Scottish public authorities to which they are entitled.
  • His role actively promotes and enforces compliance with the Freedom of Information Act which fully comes into force in 2005.

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