In Baltimore, it’s recently gotten significantly more expensive to ask the police department for emails under freedom of information laws, which allow journalists and the public to request public governmental records. Here’s the kicker: that change comes shortly after the release of an embarrassing email exchange revealing an officer and a prosecutor making fun of a sexual assault victim.
Here’s a screenshot of that exchange, courtesy of MuckRock, a website that helps journalists make freedom of information requests.
A journalist using MuckRock discovered the change while making an unrelated request for records. Now, two months after the embarrassing emails surfaced, it’ll cost reporters and other members of the public $50 before even starting a search for emails, making “freedom” of information something of a misnomer.
MuckRock accurately describes the change as “prohibitively expensive.” Freedom of information laws exist so the public can keep watch over the government and hold officials accountable. With shrinking newsroom budgets, increased concerns over libel lawsuits, and the higher cost of investigative journalism, many news outlets are finding it harder to justify important but expensive hard-hitting work. FOIA requests have resulted in some of the most significant recent news stories, including the Laquan McDonald shooting being widely publicized, CUNY being forced to reduce the salary of David Petraeus from $200,000 to $1, and an exposé of the FDA’s manipulation of science journalists into providing favorable coverage, among many others.
For a functioning democracy, it’s essential to invest in this type of journalism though, and government should be making this work easier, not harder.