President’s column: A reminder of the value of our public records laws

By Betsy Russell

 It’s not every day that journalists from Angola, Costa Rica, Portugal, Serbia, Singapore and Tanzania are checking out Idaho’s state Capitol, meeting with student journalists at Boise State, stopping by Idaho Public Television and meeting with various Idahoans. But it happened in June, as the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program brought the group to Boise, after trips to Washington, D.C. and Tampa, Fla., and before a visit to Boston.

 They were part of a group of nearly two dozen international journalists from around the world on an Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists tour entitled, “Media Responsibility in an Age of Disinformation.” The group was together for most of its tour, but split into three parts to visit a “small city,” and Boise was their small city destination.

 That’s why Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, was quizzing the journalists at the state Capitol about whether they have public records laws in their home countries that allow them to request and receive copies of public documents, like we have in Idaho. Wintrow noted that all her written records, including emails and texts, are public records.

 “That is America,” Alpha Abdalah Wawa said to laughter from the rest of the group. He’s a reporter, newscaster and producer for the Tanzania Broadcasting Corp., an independent media outlet that focuses on promoting government accountability.

 “In my country, politicians would give you stories that they want you to talk about,” he said. “It’s sometimes hard to access the information.”

 The Rwandan genocide in 1994 aroused grave concerns throughout the region about lack of access to government information, he said, as residents weren’t notified of what was happening. As a result, his country and others in the region have passed some laws, but it’s still “not easy” to access government information.

 “The  military chief has to see what you are writing about, if you can broadcast or not,” he said.

 Zoran Strika, a reporter with Radio 021 in Serbia, said, “We don’t have that open public records, and the biggest struggle is to get the real information that you need.”

 Jing Chen, a correspondent for Liahne Zaobao, a Chinese newspaper publishing in Singapore, said she requests records, but,  “They just keep you waiting there forever,” even if all she’s waiting for is confirmation about her story — a yes or no. If journalists publish without government confirmation of a story, they risk being sued by the government for disseminating false information, she said. “That’s how our government deals with journalists, is by suing.”

 Alex Guimaraes Martins, a journalist with Publico in Portugal, noted that he doesn’t have those problems with politicians in his country; the rest of the group agreed ruefully, calling Portugal’s system among the “top 10.”

 It isn’t uncommon for International delegations to visit Boise under the auspices of the State Department; just last week, a delegation from Cameroon, including the Attorney General for the nation’s Special Criminal Court, several non-governmental organization representatives and an official with the National Anti-Corruption Commission of Cameroon, came through Boise. Their objectives included examining measures that the public sector, civil society and business groups take to prevent corruption, encourage ethical leadership and transparency, and ensure government accountability to the public.

 It’s less common for journalists to visit. And most delegations require translators; all the journalists were fluent in English, so they didn’t need translators.

 Among the objectives of their program are to examine the rights and responsibilities of a free press in a democracy; observe operational practices, standards and institutions of the media in the United States; and explore the impact of digital and social media on the availability and accuracy of news.

 All agreed that “fake news” is becoming an increasing problem around the world. Said Guimaraes Martins, “‘Fake news’ mainly is propaganda. It’s more widely disseminated because of technology, but it’s propaganda, pure and simple.”

 Bill Manny, writer and producer for Idaho Public Television, met with the group during their visit to IdahoPTV. “I was impressed that we had a whole lot more in common than I expected,” he said. Their discussion focused on “the challenges facing both print and broadcast, including public media, in those other countries,” he said. “I was just struck by the parallels rather than the differences.”

 But he added, “When we fight with politicians, it’s over documents. In places like that sometimes, when journalists fight with the government, it’s for their very lives.”

 Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief for the Idaho Press, and is the president of the Idaho Press Club. A version of this article first appeared in the Idaho Press.