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by Ray Fleming
SINCE the Freedom of Information Act came into force in Britain on 1 January some 4'000 requests have been put to the British government and other public bodies for the release of official documentation on a wide variety of subjects.

However those making these requests, many of them journalists and researchers in the media, are discovering that the information they want is not as freely available as they had expected it to be.

Government departments are finding a variety of reasons to explain why documents are not readily available, among them the high cost of finding a file and providing copies.

In a disturbing number of cases the answer has come back that the department concerned is “under no obligation” to disclose the information asked for or that it needs time “to balance the public interest against the possible harm of disclosure”.

The latter excuse was given by the BBC when asked by a newspaper for the minutes of the meeting of the BBC board of governors on the day of the publication of the Hutton report on the death of Dr David Kelly.

It is only to be expected that the provisions of this new Act will take some time to be fully operative but the early days have not been encouraging. It is particularly disappointing that the scope of the Act is being questioned in some cases and that in others those holding the information asked for are claiming the right to decide whether it is in the public interest that it should be released.

Meanwhile, there is news from the United States, where the principle of freedom of information is well established, that the Justice Department is asking a public interest foundation for $400'000 for information about immigrants rounded up after 9/11 and never heard of since.