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July 16, 2012

New guidelines reveal legal obligation on public authorities and private companies to reveal environmental information to journalists

By Cleland Thom

Journalists may expect to get better results when they request environmental information from public authorities in future.

The Information Commissioner has published guidelines about the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) for the first time.

The regulations stand alongside the Freedom of Information Act and work in the same way. They give the press and public access to all environmental information held by public bodies and companies delivering contracts for them.

Journalists find them useful when they’re researching stories on anything from climate change to GM crops and water pollution to radioactive waste.

Up to now, there’s been very little guidance on when / why public bodies can refuse information requests.

But now, the Information Commissioner has given some advice.

Here’s the basics :

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  1. The ‘default position’ is that authorities must disclose information if journalists ask for it.
  2. The regulations make it hard for an authority refuse a information request.
  3. Public authorities can release business information they hold – without the business’ knowledge or consent.
  4. Authorities cannot ask why a journalist wants information, or be obstructive or secretive because they know what they might do with it.
  5. The information must be accurate and up to date.
  6. They must respond in 20 working days.
  7. The media does not have automatic right to reproduce information they’re given. Check copyright first.
  8. Journalists can make requests by phone. But it’s best to provide written confirmation  to ensure accuracy.
  9. Authorities cannot ‘neither confirm nor deny’ they have information, unless it’s to do with:
  • international relations
  • defence
  • national security or public safety

10. Authorities can refuse a request if it is too general – but they should then ask for a more precise request.

11. Authorities can refuse to hand over information when:

  • It involves personal data.
  • It’s against the public interest. The guidelines point out that the fact the media are  chasing a story does not automatically mean that there is a public interest.
  • The request is unreasonable.
  • Release WILL (not might) have an adverse effect on the course of justice, or someone’s intellectual property rights. But the authority must demonstrate HOW the adverse effect will occurr. Even then, they can only withhold the information that has the adverse effect – nothing else.
  • The information is incomplete, or not available at all.

In short, public authorities should release almost all environmental information to journalists, or anyone else who asks for it – it’s the law.

Cleland Thom is a consultant and trainer in media law

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