The document you seek may be available to you, although at a distance.
By Maren Sæbø and Tarjei Leer-Salvesen
In the opening scene of Douglas Adam’s science fiction comedy “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” humans suddenly discover the world is about to be demolished. The aliens come to construct their inter-galactic highway, and humans have failed to prepare their evacuation plan. Presidents claim they did not know about the plan, but the alien Vogons make it very clear that the document describing the plans have been available for a long time. It is not their problem that no human ever asked to see it. The document in question had been filed according to the law. It was lying in a file cabinet under a stairway in a very remote location on a very remote planet that humans had never visited. But if we had filed a request to the right office, they would have seen it. And the humans might have saved the planet or at least, its population.
In Adam’s novel, the lack of international and intergalactic request for information actually leads to the end of the world. In most cases, our stumbling around in the darkness, without knowledge, has less dire consequences. However, if you learn to ask for access to information properly, if you learn to access information across border, you might become the master of the universe; or at least the master of your newsroom.
Taking the power back
If we leave Adam’s science-fiction novel aside, access to information requests (hereafter referred to as ATI), are a great tool to access written documentation that may be basis for the stories we cover as reporters. Reporters have always had documents to rely on, which have added value to our documentation on top of what our open and hidden oral sources tell us.
But there is a significant difference between the documents which are provided to us by a source, and the documents we request under a country’s ATI legislation. With the latter, the reporter decides what to ask for. With the first, the reporter is more dependent on choices made by the source, as to what documents will be included in the provided collection. To access documents directly, independently of your oral sources, is to take the power back, and puts you in control of your own research. Using ATI as a tool, as a supplement to ordinary work with oral sources and leaked documents, makes the reporter less dependent on the source-relationship.
Using ATI across borders may be even more rewarding than doing so in your own country. You may discover that a document concerning two or more governments may be classified in one country while open and accessible in another. We have experienced this in cases we have worked with, and seen that this enables journalism, which is otherwise difficult to achieve, when documentation is not there.
When and why
Maren’ Sæbø’s background is mainly with foreign news. She has covered topics such as development aid, foreign policy, international oil industry and Europe-Africa-relations. Tarjei Leer-Salvesen has been focusing on Norwegian policy-making, Norwegian industry relations and of late years much local stories centered on the Norwegian south coast and its villages and small towns. It may be a surprise that our need to access international sources in our work remains (almost) equally high. In local reporting, many stories can be greatly enriched if the journalist knows the history and the international affiliations of corporations active in the neighborhood.
At journalist educational institutions across the world, every professor’s mantra is “follow the money”. This is often a good lead when building your research. However, let us mention two more leads, to supplement. You can also “follow a person”, and while doing archive research, you can sometimes try to “follow the paper-trail of the decision-making”.
So where do you start? When researching stories, take note of which countries are somewhat involved. Has the person you are researching been travelling a lot? Is the company you are researching registered in different countries? Are you investigating a decision that involves governments in more than one country, or perhaps an international organization?
You will soon find that more than 100 nations now have their own version of an Access to public information legislation. You will find that many international organizations have their own rules as well.
Legal differences – cause of frustration and opportunity
Most journalists will, and should, start to understand the law in their own country. However, while the ATI legislations in a variety of countries share some common principle, they are not necessarily the same. These differences may be a cause of frustration. Nevertheless, herein also lies the real advantage for those who learn this across borders.
In many countries, a main principle in ATI legislation is that the law exists because the government shall be accountable to its own citizens. In a country such as Kenya, for instance, this means that only a citizen of the country may file an ATI-request. A company or an NGO cannot do it, and certainly not a foreign citizen.
In addition, costs may apply, though limited in theory to the actual cost of printing and sending paper copies. This is a common principle, as applied also in the US. However, in the US, you do not have to be a citizen to file your FOIA-request. (Their ATI law is called the Freedom of Information Act or FOIA). You must provide an address and payment details, and that’s it.
Then again, other countries may not care who is asking to see the information. Uganda makes no demand of citizenship to the applicant. In addition, Norway has taken the radical approach to say that all public information shall be provided free of cost and the Norwegian government even agrees to anonymous ATI-requests. Here, the whole principle has been turned around. When a Norwegian public institution receives an ATI-request, their job is to find out whether the information can be released, regardless of who is asking. The implementation of a mechanism to file anonymous ATI-requests is difficult to match with a payment principle, so to keep costs down and be effective, documents are mainly provided electronically.
For a reporter facing these differences, there is a lot to learn. While everyone can use the Norwegian system, and everyone with a wallet can use the American system, you need to be partner with someone in countries who demand that applicants have citizenship.
Asking the European Union
Journalists in large parts of the world may want to access documents from the European Union. Moreover, these institutions produce many documents.
For Norwegian journalists, understanding the EU-institutions is crucial. Norway is not a member state. However, our country is affiliated with the EU through the EEA Agreement that allows access to EUs Inner Market. As part of this agreement, Norway accepted to adopt directives and legislation designed to harmonise the European countries on thousands of big and small issues related to the market.
A Norwegian journalist can look at processes in Brussels and learn which law amendments will be proposed in the Norwegian parliament in time to come. But even as a journalist on other continents, you may want to learn how to access EU-documents, as they regulate a whole lot of other arrangements on trade and aid.
Who and how?
The EU Institutions have developed their own ATI-legislation. The main document is Regulation 1049/2001 regarding access to Parliament, Council and Commission documents.. It is worth to note also the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (Article 15) and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Article 42).
All EU citizens and residents have the right to ask all EU institutions for documents and to receive answers within 15 working days. This is the main principle of the EU ATI-legislation, and it applies to NGOs and corporations. The scope of this applies to the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council of the European Union – as well as other offices, bodies, and agencies. For the European Central Bank, the Court of Justice of the European Union, and the European Investment Bank, the right only applies to their administrative functions.
If you are not a citizen of a member country, they will probably not care. However, if you encounter a problem, there are 500 million citizens in the EU, and you only need to cooperate with one of them to file an ATI request.
The official way of filing an ATI request in the EU system is through their Transparency Portal. The site provides you with an overview of the legislation, as well as a description of many documents available, and help to file an ATI-request.
We recommend that you try it. However, we understand many users may find it difficult to understand the complex bureaucracy in Europe. There is an alternative. AsktheEU.org has been built by civil society organizations to help members of the public to get the information you want about the European Union. This website helps you with addressing your ATI request to the correct EU body. They publish the question and the answer you get, and notify you as a user when anything happens. They also help with appeals.
Asking in the United States
As we have touched upon earlier, the Unites States Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) makes American government documents available to anybody around the globe, as long as you register an address and payment details. The American Government has also developed a starting point for FOIA-requests. The site has explanatory videos on how to make a FOIA-request; statistics on what kind of requests are done and useful tips. It also has links to where to make the requests. If you want to acquire a document from for instance, the US Agency for Development Aid (USAID) or the US Department of State, start at the FOIA-site and navigate from there. The impact of US policy on rest of the world can hardly be exaggerated, most likely, whichever country you reside in or what citizenship you have, there will be documents in the US relating to your government, or local businesses.
When Tarjei Leer-Salvesen was researching a story about the Norwegian company Aker Kværner and their involvement at the US controlled Guantanamo detention facility, access to information across borders was crucial. The story was part of a documentary film by the filmmaker Erling Borgen. This was a private company and the information about these controversial contracts was not a topic on which they wanted to share much information. ATI requests to Norwegian government institutions were not very helpful. These institutions were not thoroughly informed and there was little they could have provided even if they wanted to.
The Guantanamo contracts were between the Norwegian private company Aker Kværner’s American subsidiary and the US Navy, who is in charge of the US operations at Guantanamo. Every public office in the US has a FOIA-contact. You can usually find their contact details on the website of that office. In this case, the US Navy provided more than 1000 pages of contract details upon request. A small payment for photocopying and mail handling was involved. This made it possible to tell a story, which would otherwise have lacked crucial evidence.
A few years later, Leer-Salvesen was investigating a far less controversial story concerning the security regulations for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones in Norway. The new security guidelines for UAVs were much discussed, and the Civil Aviation Authority was challenged to tell the UAV community of the basis on which their new rules were built.
An oral source suggested that the most important piece of advice the Civil Aviation Authority had received, was from their counterparts in Finland. However, the archives and electronic records showed no traces of any contact with Finland in the process.
However, Finland also has an Access to Information Law. While filing and ATI-request to Helsinki, it was possible to get a copy of the letter from the Civil Aviation Authority in Finland to their Norwegian counterpart and prove that the suggestion from the oral source was right.
Asking the United Nations
In principle, the United Nations support access to information. It is an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, as recognised by Resolution 59 of the UN General Assembly adopted in 1946, as well as by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). It has also made access to information a part of the Development Goal number 16 by stating that all states should develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels.
However, the principle does apparently not apply to the United Nations itself. All official statements are accessible from their websites, but to access internal documents from the United Nations that are less than 20 year old, you have to contact the relevant office and file a request. If there is no security classification on the records in question, you might be granted access. For older records, you will have to file a request at the UN Archives and records management section. Their website is also a good starting point to access the organization’s online archives, which include a lot of photographic material.
-So, what about the World Bank or the African Union?
Another international organization that might hold documents relevant to your country is the World Bank (IBRD: International Bank of Reconstruction and Development). This bank has kept records since 1947, and in principle, they are all accessible. Nevertheless, there is a whole lot of exemptions. To find out what these exemptions are, the best way is actually to ask for access. You can do that on the World Bank Access to Information page, which also includes links to digitized records and archives. They also include a monthly summary on what kind of requests they have been receiving. This is a useful list to see what kind of documents can be accessed.
As the United Nations, the African Union (AU) supports the notion of access of information for all. The African Commission on Human and Peoples rights (ACHPR) adopted a resolution on freedom of expression in 2012 that included provisions for access to information, they also asked the AU to endorse a Model Law on this for all African states. The following year, the Commission adopted the model law, and is currently promoting in. Accessing the African Unions documents on the other hand, can be confusing. The African Union Commission archives are online and searchable, but many documents have their titles retracted so that not everything shows up in searches. The websites of the African Union was at the time of writing not operational, and there are limited resources online. However, they do run a library, and staff is listed for you to contact for queries.
Access to information laws also apply to historical archives in most countries. In fact, as time goes by, documents that might have been exempt from access when they were made may be declassified later. This certainly applies to documents concerning security institutions, defense and secret services. In addition, documents withheld on grounds of privacy, might be declassified after some time. Again, different states will have different rules on this. As a reporter, one oftentimes concentrates on recent developments. However, news are not just what is new, news can also be found in the depth of history. This particularly rings true in countries that have been through times of turmoil or war. Stories not previously known may be hidden in the archives.
Older documents may not be accessible electronically, but must be accessed through a physical archive. Most countries have a National Archive; they might also have regional and local archives. Many historical archives have their catalogues online, which means that it is possible to find out what kind of papers and collections they include. Some archives allow you to order their documents online, to be accessed in one of their reading rooms.
One example is the British National Archives, which have both online collections and catalogues for you to browse. They also provide a useful online “helpdesk”. If you click on “help with your research” this will take you to an overview of topics. They will also guide you through the process of ordering documents, or hire a researcher to access the reading room for you, with a simple click. The UK National archives also hold records from former colonies and dominions, including several East African colonies such as Kenya and Uganda. However, these countries also have their own National Archives. Kenya National Archives are based in Nairobi. The Uganda National Archives opened in Kampala in 2016, organizing collections previously housed at Entebbe.
Several other historical archives can be accessed online. Among these are the US National Archive  and Australia National Archives. On the African continent, the South African National Archive allows you to search their databases and collections online.
Collections from African states are also housed in the French National Archive, the Bundesarchiv in Germany, The National Archive of Portugal (Torre de Tombo), and the State Archive of Belgium. Different rules might apply in accessing these archives and collections, but most of them let you search their catalogues online.
Access to information is a principle in most countries, including multilateral organisations. However, there may be a gap between the legislation itself and its application. Although some countries such as Norway and the US have portals and databases that are searchable from everywhere in the world, many countries restrict access to their own citizens. It is possible to circumvent this by cross-border collaboration between reporters.
Access to information laws also apply to countries’ historical archives and some of these are also in a process to be digitized. However, more often than not, historical documents must be accessed in reading rooms attached to the archives. Many historical archives have researchers attached to them that can help you navigate, or be hired to do the actual research.
When you access official records, current or historical ones, you take control over your own research and story. To independently access records makes you less dependent on your other sources.
When you start your quest for records and documents, you can follow several leads. In addition to the money train or a person, you can follow a process. In all cases, the paper trail might be crucial for you story, especially in cases where your oral sources might try to hide something.
- Do you know which institutions in what countries are involved in the case you are investigating?
- Did you check the Access to Information laws in those countries?
- Can you request that information yourself?
- Can you collaborate with a colleague in any of those countries?
- Have you considered hiring help to access those archives?
EU transparency portal: http://ec.europa.eu/transparency/index_en.htm
US National Archives: www.nara.gov
GIJN’s FOIA guide: https://gijn.org/gijns-global-guide-to-freedom-of-information-resources/
 «FOIA-requests» is short for Freedom of Information Act Requests. We could as well you the term ATI-requests, meaning Access to Information-requests.
 Regulation 1049/2001 can be found here: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/PDF/r1049_en.pdf
 The Treaty can be found here: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex%3A12012E%2FTXT
 The Charter can be found here: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/charter/default_en.htm
 You will find the Transparency portal of the EU here: https://ec.europa.eu/info/about-european-union/principles-and-values/transparency_en