November 6, 2019

The Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW) is increasingly concerned about the shroud of secrecy that has enveloped the federal government and government agencies. For that reason, we have co-signed a letter to Congress, authored by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and signed on by journalism organizations, in support of legislation that would ensure that government experts are able to speak with reporters without impediments.
In addition, we are troubled by new rules from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that centralize and complicate the process for journalists, especially those working beyond the Beltway, to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
In its letter, SPJ described a “relatively rapid trend toward federal agencies and others prohibiting staff members from communicating to journalists without reporting to some authority, often public information officers.” The letter argues these new norms amount to “a form of censorship” that keeps information from the public, from journalists and from Congress.
The SPJ letter notes “that the Scientific Integrity Act (H.R. 1709 and S. 775), as introduced by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), had the intent of allowing federal scientists to speak to the media, as well as publish scientific findings, participate in scientific organizations and communicate in other ways.” The letter further calls on Congress to support that “the right of unimpeded communication with journalists for all federal employees and not just for scientists” a view that SABEW endorses in the strongest possible terms.
Meanwhile, rules put into place this summer by the (EPA) require that all FOIA requests be submitted to the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., and they require that all digital requests be submitted on the same form. In other words, journalists working in the field cannot work directly with local EPA offices to file requests and they cannot file them via email, as has been a common practice among organizations.
The new rules could have a chilling effect on relationships between reporters and EPA staff and it creates yet another situation where government censors or minders will now be involved in what previously was direct communication between journalists and EPA employees.
SABEW is committed to supporting the efforts of our members to gather information from government agencies without undue delay or interference. Our democracy demands nothing less.