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Interior's Proposed Limits On Handing Out Public Records Highlighted For 'Sunshine Week'

Image of redacted FOIA documents.
Renee Bright / KUER

The week of March 11 is ‘Sunshine Week.’ It’s promoted every year by journalists and government watchdogs to highlight the importance of open government and transparency. KUER’s All Things Considered Host Bob Nelson sat down with Mountain West News Bureau reporter Nate Hegyi to talk about how his work is affected by new, proposed rules limiting government transparency.

Bob Nelson: How did Sunshine Week come about?

Nate Hegyi:So it began in 2002 when the Florida Legislature tried making it tougher for journalists to get public records. journalists there responded by creating a day called ‘Sunshine Sunday’ that brought awareness to government transparency, and it's since become this nationally recognized full week of events.

BN: How is the awareness raised during this week? How are we spotlighting this?

NH: Government watchdogs hold panel discussions, Congress holds transparency hearings and then reporters like us talking about it on the radio.

BN: Has government become more transparent? I always thought the Obama administration was really kind of the leader on Sunshine Week as they call themselves, "the most transparent administration in history."

NH: Yeah, they weren't quite as transparent as they made themselves out to be. For instance, they didn't release information on the number of people killed in drone strikes for most of Obama's administration. They made it tough for serious reporters to interview the president. For instance, the Washington Post said they weren't allowed to interview Obama for most of his presidency.

BN: What about the current administration?

NH: Well, on the surface some people might think that the Trump administration is very transparent. I mean the president tweets random thoughts every day. A press conference turned into a live debate between Trump and Democrats. But in reality, as a working journalist, you know, we're finding it's not quite that transparent.

BN: So how about some examples? What do you mean exactly?

NH: Well there is this new strategy in dealing with public records requests at the Interior Department. That agency is like the landlord for a lot of the public lands in the West. So you can imagine as a Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I report on them a lot and it's kind of a pain when I can't get information I need to tell stories accurately.

BN: Yeah I know it takes some time, too. I know you just gotten some more recent documents, right? And you've done a lot of reporting on this new strategy before, but give us a quick rundown.

NH: Well there's two big things. The first one is Interior is changing the rules to make it tougher to get public records requests. Essentially they're putting a cap on the number of requests they process every month and then they're asking for these really, really specific requests.

BN: Right. And what else?

NH: They've also put a politician in charge of reviewing public records requests. So for example, as you said, I've been filing a lot recently and I wanted Zinke’s travel records for a trip he took to the Grand Canyon. Receipts, itinerary things like that. I wanted it fast for a breaking news story. So now I have to explain why I want those records and what my story is about to a Trump administration official. Specifically, a former Republican adviser for the Koch brothers. That Trump official then decides whether my story is newsworthy enough to get those records quickly. If he says no, I've got to wait up to three years for those records and that's just a really, really long time.

BN: Wow. And I imagine this has a ripple effect through other media newspapers?

NH: Yeah, it’s a funny thing to be a journalist reporting on this where at the same time you've got nearly 40 news organizations, including NPR, signing on to a letter against the new rule. And Democratic and Republican senators, including Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, have expressed concerns about it. But the rule isn't finalized yet and considering all this bipartisan anger towards it, we'll see if it gets gutted or scrapped.

Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
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