Forty journalists have signed an open letter pushing the Scottish Government to expand and strengthen freedom of information laws.
The letter, published by Scottish investigative journalism outlet The Ferret and news website Common Space, also accuses government ministers and advisers of blocking Freedom of Information requests.
Journalists from most of Scotland’s biggest news outlets have signed the letter, including the Herald titles, Daily Record, The National, Scottish Daily Mail, Scottish Sun, Ferret, Times, Guardian and Telegraph.
It comes two years after a joint letter signed by journalists accused the Scottish Government of screening FOI requests from members of the press “for political damage” and delaying responses.
Signatories to yesterday’s open letter welcomed a Scottish Parliament review of the country’s FOI Act announced earlier this year, but said they “still experience problems” accessing information from authorities.
They said problems included government ministers and advisers blocking information requests, unexplained delays in the release of information beyond legal deadlines, media requests “still being treated differently to those from members of the public” and a “seemingly widespread shortage” of staff handling FOI requests.
“Because of these experiences, we believe there is a compelling case for the legislation to be expanded and strengthened,” the letter said.
Scottish Information Commissioner Daren Fitzhenry published a report in June last year which found that the Scottish Government took longer to reply to Freedom of Information requests submitted by journalists compared to other inquiries.
The letter continued: “The [FOI] act was written before digital technology and storage was in widespread use and we agree with Mr Fitzhenry that public bodies should make much greater use of open data, with much greater emphasis on voluntary publication of data, procurement contracts and so on.
“In general, the public sector needs to invest much more heavily and consistently in open data and information disclosure, underpinned by new legislative standards of transparency.
“It is remarkable how many times public bodies repeat failures to properly handle information requests after the SIC has upheld complaints in exactly those areas.”
The letter went on to recommend that limits be placed on the rights of ministers and advisers to oversee information requests and called for a review into public bodies misusing exemptions.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “It’s important to note that Scotland already has the most open, far-reaching freedom of information laws in the UK – and we are working to widen the coverage even further. Last year 91 per cent of Scottish Government FOI responses issued on time with the number of requests increasing by nearly 12 per cent.
“The SIC said there was ‘no doubt’ that significant improvements had been made in the Scottish Government’s FOI performance and found no evidence of improper motives in the application of exemptions or special advisers holding any decision-making power in the process.
“The SIC described the new criteria for our decision making process agreed with him as providing ‘a sound foundation for future work’.
“We will co-operate fully with the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee as they take forward post-legislative scrutiny of FOISA.”
Picture: Reuters/Russell Cheyne