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News Agencies Seek Sunshine on Govt. Documents

Seven journalism organizations and The Associated Press are joining to promote accessible, accountable and open government.

The Sunshine in Government Initiative (search) seeks to combat what the groups see as increased government secrecy since the 2001 terrorist attacks. The coalition will lobby for legislation and seek to educate the public about First Amendment (search) issues.

"National security depends on public trust," AP President and CEO Tom Curley said. "The trend toward secrecy is the greatest threat to democracy. We must be vigilant at explaining and fighting for accountable government in every jurisdiction."

The initiative was announced ahead of "Sunshine Week," a weeklong campaign for government openness spearheaded by the AP and more than 50 news outlets, journalism groups, universities and the American Library Association (search).

A bill sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., proposes creation of a 16-member advisory commission that would conduct a study to determine ways to speed the release of records under the Freedom of Information Act. (search) Cornyn and Leahy planned to introduce the measure Thursday.

Under the act, government agencies must give the public access to government information unless the information falls under certain exemptions. However, the agencies can decide on their own to disclose the exempted information.

Another bill sponsored by Cornyn and Leahy, called the OPEN Government Act of 2005, seeks to speed release of information sought in FOIA requests, which now can take months or years.

It's been endorsed by the Sunshine Initiative and dozens of interest groups in journalism and across the political spectrum, from the liberal American Civil Liberties Union (search) to the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security plans a hearing on the bill Tuesday.

Witnesses include: Walter Mears, former AP executive editor and Washington bureau chief and Pulitzer prize-winning political writer; Katherine M. "Missy" Cary, assistant attorney general of Texas; Mark Tapscott, director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation; Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive at George Washington University; and Thomas Susman of the law firm Ropes & Gray.

Andy Alexander, chairman of the American Society of Newspaper Editors' (search) Freedom of Information Committee, said he was pleased the Senate is taking up the issue.

"One of the reasons that we initiated 'Sunshine Week' was to prompt a public discussion on the importance of Freedom of Information," said Alexander. "The fact that there's actually a hearing on the subject after decades of congressional silence is a heartening step."

The seven media organizations involved in the Sunshine Initiative are the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Society of Professional Journalists, Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, National Newspaper Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Radio-Television News Directors Association and the Newspaper Association of America.