Documents and other data are often the building blocks of a great investigative report. So understanding and using laws that give you access to such information are necessary tools of the trade.
From a global perspective, the public’s right to access government records is a privilege in some countries and an ongoing, heated debate in others.
The best source we have found to find Freedom of Information Acts by country is at freedominfo.org. They have compiled lists by region, outlining how each country’s laws work in practice and tactics others have used for success.
Search each country by region at the following links:
- Africa (http://www.freedominfo.org/regions/africa/)
- Asia (http://www.freedominfo.org/regions/east-asia/)
- Australia and New Zealand (http://www.freedominfo.org/regions/oceania/)
- Caribbean (http://www.freedominfo.org/regions/caribbean/)
- Central Asia (http://www.freedominfo.org/regions/central-asia/)
- Europe (http://www.freedominfo.org/regions/europe/)
- Latin America (http://www.freedominfo.org/regions/latin-america/)
- Middle East (http://www.freedominfo.org/regions/middle-east/)
- USA and Canada (http://www.freedominfo.org/regions/north-america/)
Instructions for Filing Freedom of Information (FOI) Requests
1. Determine What Records You Need
What constitutes a record?
Generally, an item in custody or control of a federal agency is considered a record (see suggested resources for a more detailed definition of “public record”). The form of the record does not matter; it can be a printed or typed document, photograph, tape recording, map, or computer disk. When filing the request, describe to the best of your ability the document you are seeking. If you want a specific report or data, it helps if you can cite the agency’s exact title or wording in your request. Specificity also may help save you money because most agencies will charge fees for processing the request. Depending on the nature of your work, you might be eligible for fee waivers (see sample request letter).
Additionally, agencies may be required to publish or provide for public inspection certain types of information about their services. This includes descriptions of organization and operations of the agency and contact information, such as office addresses. Depending on the country’s legislation, an agency may make available final opinions from adjudication of cases as well as administrative staff manuals affecting the public. The USA’s FOIA, for example, also requires agencies to make available their responses online.
2. Identify the Agency that has the Records
In many countries there is no central government records office that processes FOI requests; therefore you must address a FOI request to a specific agency. If you are unsure which agency has the records, you may wish to make FOI requests to more than one agency.
3. Compose the Letter
Most countries and agencies will require a written FOI request. The letter can be simple, as long as it contains the necessary information.
§ Address the request letter to the agency’s FOI Officer.
§ In the letter, state that the request is being made under the country’s Freedom of Information Act.
§ In the letter, reasonably describe the records you need. If you are requesting records in a form other than paper, describe how you would like to receive the information.
§ Include a statement about the fees, either your request for a fee waiver or your agreement to pay the necessary costs.
§ Remind the agency of the time limits on your request. Some FOI acts require a response within a set period of working days.
§ Include your name and postal and e-mail addresses in the request, so the agency can contact you with questions regarding the letter, if necessary.
§ Write “Freedom of Information Act Request” on the outside of the envelope containing the letter, in the bottom left-hand corner.
§ Keep copies of your request letter and related correspondence until you receive the information. If and when your request has a FOI ID number, refer to it in all future correspondence.
4. Follow up Your Filing
After allowing time for your request to arrive, telephone the agency’s FOI Officer to be certain it was received. Ask to speak directly with the officer processing your request. Your request may be denied entirely or in part, but the agency may be required to explain the reasons for denial. In some countries, as in the USA, you have the right to appeal any denials to the head of the agency and, if necessary, beyond that through the U.S. court system.
Sample FOIA request letter
A sample request letter for public records covered by the Freedom of Information Act:
Freedom of Information Act Officer
Name of Agency
Address of Agency
City, State, Zip Code
RE: Freedom of Information Act Request
Dear FOI Officer:
Under the Freedom of Information Act (cite name of the act here), I am requesting the following documents:
Reasonably describe the records and/or information you need. It helps to include names of people and places and the time period relevant to the material. If you know the name or title of the document you seek, include that. Attach any other documents describing your research and specify the form in which you would like to receive the information, such as paper or computer disk.
(Explain your background and the nature of your work, such as):
As a representative of the news media affiliated with (name of your organization), I am gathering information on (subject) that is of current interest to the public because (briefly state reasons). This information will be disseminated to the general public. (If you are a freelancer, describe your work experience and mention any publication contracts to explain that the information will be presented to the public.)
(Optional fee-waiver request)
Please waive any fees for record retrieval or copying associated with this request. Release of this information is in the public interest, because it will contribute significantly to understanding of government operations and activities. In the event that you deny my fee waiver, I agree to pay up to (state amount in local currency) for reasonable costs. However, please notify me prior to your incurring any expenses in excess of that amount.
(Suggested request for fee benefit as member of news media)
As a member of the news media, I am required to pay only for the direct cost of duplication after the first 100 pages.
If my request is denied in whole or in part, I expect a detailed justification for your decision. I also request that you release any segregable portions of otherwise exempt material. I, of course, reserve the right to appeal your decision to withhold any information or to deny a fee waiver.
A request for expedited review may be considered under two conditions. You must be a reporter or an individual who is “primarily engaged in disseminating information,” and your request must be a matter of “compelling need.” If you satisfy these conditions, include the following description:
Please honor expedited review of this request. This information is of timely value and of significant interest to the public. (Optional) This information concerns a matter of urgency. (Explain the urgent and timely need for distributing the information to the public.)
I certify that my statements concerning the need for expedited review are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief.
I look forward to your response within 20 working days, as outlined by the statute. Please contact me by telephone, mail, or e-mail, if you have any questions regarding this request.
Thank you in advance,
Daytime phone number
(Optional) Fax number
(Optional) E-mail address