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Monday, May 24, 1999 Published at 23:04 GMT 00:04 UK


Freedom of Information: USA vs France

Freedom of Information: But does it make government more open?

The UK Government's proposals for new legislation on freedom of information go further than many countries - but not as far as others.

The US is decades ahead of the UK - the Freedom of Information Act there was passed in 1966. That does not always, however, mean that Americans can find out everything they want, or need, to know.

[ image: President Mitterand disguised cancer for 11 years]
President Mitterand disguised cancer for 11 years
But the publication of any legislation at all is a big advance on the law in France - where the president could have a long-term illness without the public knowing.

Arnaud Mercier, a specialist in political communications at the University of Nice, southern France, says there is no public pressure in France for a Freedom of Information Act.

"There is a very strong tradition in France of respect for the state and people are used to the idea that the state doesn't give out much information," he says.

That can, he admits, lead to problems when it is a matter that can alter a politician's ability to govern.

When Francois Mitterand became ill with cancer in 1982, his office issued false statements, assuring the French that their president was in good health, for the next 11 years.

Even when he did at last bring his illness into the open, Arnaud Mercier says there was no objection to the secrecy.

"On the whole," he says, "there were no public protests, no outcry asking why we didn't know that Mitterand had cancer for 11 years. Nobody called it a scandal and demanded his resignation. It's not the same as the American or Anglo-Saxon approach at all."

A hard-fought right

It is difficult to imagine such secrecy in the US.

"People feel really strongly that they should be able to see how government operates," says Peggy McMahon, an American lawyer specialising in information law.

"It's a hard-fought right - it wasn't something that was acceptable from the beginning, it had to be fought for."

The US Government's Freedom of Information Act, though, is not the panacea it seems.

There are nine categories for exempting a piece of information from wider exposure - from trade secrecy to federal investigations.

That means that even if you do know exactly which document you are asking for - an often difficult requirement of the Act - it may come back with large parts of it blacked out.

"Most government officials hate the Freedom of Information Act," says Peggy McMahon. "There are very hard-fought battles between the agencies and those who want the information, because they don't get it the first time, or they get it but it's blocked out."

The process of extracting sensitive information can take years.

So how do the two different systems work in practice? BBC News Online took four key areas of sensitive information, and asked Peggy McMahon and Arnaud Mercier how accessible they are to the Americans and the French. Click on each to find out:

Access to police files

Access to medical files

Access to sensitive government information on the environment

Access to politicians' internal communications

[ image: Information is difficult to extract from US police]
Information is difficult to extract from US police
Police files

USA: Police files are, in theory, available under the Freedom of Information Act.

But Peggy McMahon says: "Given that the FBI is a law enforcement agency, almost everything they have is going to be covered by the exemption that says anything in a law enforcement investigation cannot be revealed."

France: The only source of information on the police in France is Sirpa, the press information service.

Arnaud Mercier says that, in their defence, the police are more willing than they once were to provide information.

But, he says, this enthusiasm is limited: "Generally, they can't tell you lies, but they can decide not to tell you the entire truth."

Medical records

The UK is unusual in including personal records in its proposed freedom of information legislation.

Other countries see private documents differently from government information.

USA: Medical records are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act - that only applies to federal agencies.

Medical records are held under state law, and whether you have access to them varies from state to state.

Peggy McMahon says: "If you had a grievance against a private hospital, for example, all the information would come out in the lawsuit."

France: A recent law, the closest to any information law France has, gave private citizens the right to see their documents.

That does not mean it is embraced wholeheartedly.

"This obligation is not accepted by the great majority of the medical establishment," says Arnaud Mercier.

"That means the law is badly applied, and you have very little chance of getting access to any medical documents if the doctors don't want you to see them."

Sensitive environmental information

USA:"Assuming you know what the document is that you're looking for, you would file a request in writing to the agency who had the information," says Peggy McMahon.

"They have to answer you, in a certain time period, and if they don't you can appeal it. You might not get the document at all if it falls entirely under one of the exemptions; or parts of it may be blacked out."

[ image: The French attack on the Rainbow Warrior in 1985 increased environmental awareness]
The French attack on the Rainbow Warrior in 1985 increased environmental awareness
France: Arnaud Mercier says the French are becoming more sceptical in believing their government's version of the state of the environment.

"Public opinion is more sensitive about the environment," he says. "It affects public health, and there's a stronger urge to know the truth."

Politicians' letters

USA: This is where the Freedom of Information Act suddenly becomes totally toothless.

"Congressmen in all their wisdom decided that all of government should be open except for them," says Peggy McMahon. "So this statute expressly does not cover Congress."

US politicians can therefore say whatever they want in their private correspondence, happy in the knowledge that none of their internal documents can be requested by a member of the public.

France: Some letters are published, some are not.

The criteria are similar to those in the UK at the moment, and as always, are what the government wants the public to see.

"Some letters escape the net," adds Arnaud Mercier. "People publish them to embarrass a minister or reveal something that shouldn't be revealed. But there's no obligation to publish letters or correspondence between ministers."

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