Persistence and Strategy Are Key to Unearthing Government Documents
Journalists Bill Conroy and Ernesto Villanueva Share Their Success at Using Mexican and US Freedom of Information Acts
By Jillian Kestler-D’Amours
Class of 2010, School of Authentic Journalism
March 4, 2010
PLAYA DEL CARMEN, QUINTANA ROO, FEBRUARY 2010: Since 2004, Bill Conroy has been writing about the House of Death in Ciudad Juarez – the site of multiple murders carried out by members of a Mexican drug organization with the assistance of a U.S. government informant who was overseen by U.S. federal agents.
Six years, eighty Narco News articles, countless hours of research and dozens of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests later, Conroy knows just how important it is for reporters to be tenacious when it comes to uncovering information.
“You have to be persistent and strategic and you have to share information with people to build a path through the bureaucracy,” said Conroy, an American journalist and Narco News correspondent, at a plenary session at the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism in Playa del Carmen on Thursday, February 11.
The workshop explored access to information laws in both the United States and Mexico, and outlined what similarities and differences exist between the two countries’ systems.
The purpose of such regulations is to provide members of the public with access to government information.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) went into effect in the United States in 1966. FOIA requests can only be made to the executive branch of the government, but can be made by anyone, regardless of whether or not they are American citizens.
“The hard part is sticking with it and doing a lot of research in front of it and cultivating a lot of sources to help you get to your goal,” Conroy said.
Conroy described the methods he has used when filing requests under FOIA. Writing a detailed letter invoking the law and being as specific as possible is extremely important, he said.
He stressed that FOIA should be used as a last resort, however, and that journalists and other individuals should be prepared for a long process.
“I have some FOIAs still pending for four years,” Conroy said. “When all your other options are out, that’s the only thing you have left.”
Conroy said that since the U.S. government is extremely compartmentalized – and that each compartment “has its own turf to protect” – journalists should send multiple FOIA requests to various departments, in order to make sure that all the information can be found.
Federal departments often have separate offices that deal directly with FOIA requests, and according to Conroy, creating a meaningful relationship with the case worker handling your request is important “because they can grease the wheels.”
He added that conducting thorough research – and collaborating with individuals who can direct you in the right direction – is crucial to filing a successful FOIA request.
“That’s not a guarantee that you’re going to get that document, but in my experience, it’s much more likely if you take that route. The one thing that helps to keep one step ahead of [the government] is to not go on fishing expeditions,” Conroy explained.
“If you’re on a tight deadline, FOIA is not a very useful tool,” he added. “But if you’re working on a long-term investigative project, it can be useful if you think strategically of how to use it.”
Overcoming ‘Cynicism and Impunity’ Crucial in Mexico
According to Ernesto Villanueva, professor at the National Autonomous University’s law school in Mexico City, who led the workshop with Conroy, the biggest challenge to achieving widespread access to information in Mexico is “cynicism and impunity on the part of the authorities.”
“In Mexico, we’ve arrived at a level of cynicism that’s just horrific. Everyday, [the government is] coming up with more excuses and restrictions,” he said.
Villanueva led a campaign to grant Freedom of Information access to journalists and individuals in Mexico. By 2002, the country had implemented the Federal Law of Transparency and Access to Public Information (LFTAIPG, in its Spanish acronym).
He explained that, to date, approximately 400,000 requests have been made at the federal level, while 200,000 have been filed at the state level.
Under LFTAIPG, individuals can request information from all three branches of the government (executive, judicial and legislative), as well as other public bodies, such as the police, among others, while also extending to the state level.
The process in Mexico can also be done completely electronically and can be initiated by anyone with or without Mexican citizenship.
Still, Villanueva said that the bureaucracy involved with filing claims often discourages individuals to do so.
“Many people see [that the document is] classified and don’t start the process at all,” said Villanueva, adding that the most common reason given for not providing someone with a document is that “the document doesn’t exist.”
Despite these challenges, however, Villanueva urged individuals to make requests anyway. Often, he said, documents become available through the appeals process, or when brought to the judicial system, similar to the process in the United States.
As has been the case in most of the plenary sessions taking place at the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism, students and professors actively raised questions, concerns and suggestions as to how to best use access to information requests in their respective countries.
For more information about how to file a LFTAIPG request, visit www.infomex.org.mx.
For a step-by-step method on drafting a U.S. FOIA request, visit www.rcfp.org.
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