GovernmentExecutive.com is reporting that the CIA has adopted a new definition of "news media" that could significantly reduce the fees and costs for citizen journalists who request documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
The new rule, which became effective on July 18, 2007, adopts the definition of "news media" contained in a 1987 Office of Management and Budget FOIA guidebook that includes "alternative media" that are disseminated electronically "through telecommunications." The CIA's final rule states:
Representative of the News Media refers to any person actively gathering news for an entity that is organized and operated to publish or broadcast news to the public. The term "news" means information that is about current events or that would be of current interest to the public. Examples of news media entities include television or radio stations broadcasting to the public at large, and publishers of periodicals (but only in those instances when they can qualify as disseminators of "news") who make their products available for purchase or subscription by the general public. These examples are not intended to be all-inclusive. Moreover, as traditional methods of news delivery evolve (e.g., electronic dissemination of newspapers through telecommunications services), such alternative media would be included in this category. In the case of "freelance" journalists, they may be regarded as working for a news organization if they can demonstrate a solid basis for expecting publication through that organization, even though not actually employed by it. A publication contract would be the clearest proof, but agencies may also look to the past publication record of a requestor in making this determination: * * * * *
What this new definition means is that citizen journalists would likely be on the same footing as members of traditional news media who, along with educational, noncommercial, and scientific groups, have a special status under FOIA because they do not have to pay fees for the agency to search and review requested documents and are only charged for duplication costs after the first 100 pages. See 32 CFR sec. 1900.13. Morever, if a citizen journalist can show that the disclosure of the documents is in the public interest, he or she can have the duplication costs waived as well.
According to GovernmentExecutive.com, criticism of the CIA's previous rules on fees for obtaining documents under FOIA prompted the CIA to make the change:
Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive, a research institute and library located at The George Washington University, said the CIA changed its definition in an attempt to pre-empt a court ruling that the agency's existing regulations were illegal. The Archive filed a lawsuit in District Court for the District of Columbia in June 2006, challenging a CIA decision that it did not qualify as "news media" and that its request would have to concern "current events" to qualify for the fee waiver. "We hope these changes will minimize CIA efforts to discourage news media FOIA requesters in the future," Fuchs said.
Of course, the devil is in the details as to how the CIA applies this new rule, but this is an important change that should be followed by other government agencies.
(Thanks to Matt Sanchez for the tip.)