How to crack the public information safe with FOIA requests

by Alejandra Xanic
Oct 30, 2018 in Investigative Journalism

Independent Mexican journalist Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab shared a Pulitzer Prize with New York Times reporter David Barstow for their investigation into Walmart's expansion in Mexico, shrouded by corruption and bribery. Xanic attributed the Prize to Mexico's young Freedom of Information Act; the investigation required more than 800 FOIA requests. Here she shares tips on how journalists can use their own countries' freedom of information laws. 

Feeling frustrated? Tired of searching and not finding what you need? Don’t despair. These tricks can ease your suffering and help you enjoy the process of requesting public information.

1. Explore alternate routes. Before taking the painful route of filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, it’s worth checking out if the information is available in a more accessible place, like among the files of a source, or in a specialized search engine, for instance. Don’t be afraid to try the “advanced search” options on the Internet. It’s also worth trying to find out if someone else has already asked –and obtained– the information you’re looking for (in Mexico there’s a search engine that lets you take a look at the history of public information requests).

2. Study the tool. Carefully reading public information laws will help you narrow the focus. In Mexico, federal law requires officials to provide the information which is located in their files. This is a hint: officials will only give you the information that already exists. They will not generate information, nor answer questions. What do the laws in your country say?

Learning how information is handled will help too: for how long is information stored? Do they move it from one place to another as deadlines expire? They usually have a procedure file (where they keep documents from the last three years), concentration files (three to ten years), and the historical archive (more than ten years). It’s well worth doing some journalistic work before sending letters to Santa.

3. Be careful what you ask for. In Mexico, the law allows officials to deliver only existing information, and officials can only do what they're authorized to do under the Public Servants law. The marriage of these two laws means an official may deny access to a certain document we’re asking for, for reasons such as being stored under the name “memorandum."

It is important to know the name they give to things. Learning about the rules and laws that regulate public information within governmental agencies is a must.

4. What do they mean by information? Normally, that’s how they refer to paper material, audio, video or movie files, photographs, databases, e-mails. It includes materials generated by government agencies but also information that the government is safeguarding but was generated by individuals, like studies or audits. If you have sources within these agencies, you can identify in which platform the information you need is stored before launching your request.

5. Do some talking. Not all agencies have a Thiago Silva as a defender in the area of transparency. Talking to those officials before, during and after making a request will save you time and improve your aim for several reasons. First, you’ll verify if that agency does have the kind of information you’re seeking. Second, you’ll learn where they keep it and how complicated it is to get to it. Third, you’ll find out if you’re filing your request clearly and correctly. And it will also help you with the most basic stuff, such as finding out if they have a scanner and what’s the maximum of pages they can upload to the system.

6. Be prepared for pushback. There are officials who are very defensive, so it’s very important that you have a plan of action. When should you ask what to whom? Should you do a general search or a more targeted search? Do you ask them to send the information over, or to hand you copies, or to review the records personally? Where else may copies of this information be found with easier access?

7. Your identity. You don’t need to identify yourself as a reporter: the right to access public information is for all citizens. However, some countries are luckier than others. Some access laws state that citizens filing requests must identify themselves and write down what information they need and why. 

8. The conspiracy theory. A “no” for an answer does not always have to do with dark orders from above. Often, behind a “no” there are very mundane and absurd reasons, like the person in charge of the search being ill. Sometimes the fault is on us, for writing bizarre and confusing requests. Talk to the officials beforehand so you can avoid these sorts of accidents.

Mastering the art of requesting information access has its secrets. It requires a lot of pre-reporting in order to know the subject of your research, the type of records that may exist and where they are. And also, to know who will be reading our requests across the desk. You'll need reporting, testing and patience; lots of patience.

Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab is a trainer at the Investigative Reporting Initiative in the Americas, an eight-country, cross-border reporting project by CONNECTAS and the International Center for Journalists. She also received a Knight International Journalism Award

This post originally appeared on the CONNECTAS site and is republished on IJNet with permission. CONNECTAS is a nonprofit journalistic initiative that promotes the production, exchange, training and dissemination of information on key developmental issues of the Americas.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via CyberHades.