[FOUNTAIN]Government informationA killer on the loose drove the Green River area, south of Seattle, into panic in 1986 during the serial murders of young women there. The death toll rose to 48, but the investigation made no progress. How could a murderer escape the police for so long?
Reporters for the Seattle Times pondered the question and analyzed the killer’s movements. They saw a pattern; the murders usually occurred near red-light districts, but the police were concentrating on the areas around casinos and airports. The journalists compiled their findings and wrote a series of investigative reports. The police changed their tactics and the Green River killings ended.
The reports were some of the best U.S. crime reporting ever done. The Seattle Times reporters inferred the killer’s movements from the investigative memorandums and the logs of the police officers on duty. How could the reporters obtain such internal information that the police in no country would make public? The state’s Open Records Act, based on the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, made it possible.
Journalism students in the United States learn how to make requests to government offices for information, citing the Freedom of Information Act or similar state laws. Unless the information is confidential, public servants have to provide the requested information or be punished. The act was established in 1966. President Lyndon Johnson, who stressed the importance of an open society, led the establishment. The act, however, does not guarantee everything about investigative reporting. Military and intelligence authorities often refused to provide information. Journalists do not use such information on their everyday reporting. Getting information takes some time, but in-depth reports, which can influence society, have often used information obtained that way.
South Korea has its own freedom of information act, passed in 1997, but it is flawed. Calling the act “Denial of Freedom of Information Act,” the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice warned of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Government Information Agency’s new media policy. Denying access to government officials would hurt journalists’ ability to investigate, the coalition said. Prime Minister Goh Kun said the new policy should be preceded by an effort to expand the scope of disclosure of information to the public. The prime minister and the civic group are right.
by Lee Gyu-yeon
The writer is the deputy crime news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.