May 23, 2018
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Why you’re able to read this

Joel Page | AP
Joel Page | AP
The Maine Freedom of Access Law is seen in a copy of the Maine Revised Statutes Annotated, Friday, June 30, 2006, by a Portland Police Department vehicle in Portland, Maine.

National Public Radio Foreign Correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson endured a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan. Drug cartels have threatened to chop up the body of Alfredo Corchado, foreign correspondent in Mexico for the Dallas Morning News, and dissolve the pieces in acid. Foreign correspondent Paul Salopek was held captive while reporting in Darfur.

All of the journalists survived and went on to win Colby College’s Elijah Parish Lovejoy award for courageous reporting. Many others have not been as lucky.

May 3 is a day probably not known to many Mainers: World Press Freedom Day. The date was set by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993 and serves as a reminder that in many countries, journalists and editors are at risk of being harassed or even killed.

It is obviously far safer reporting in Maine, but the state can improve by making more public documents readily available online. After all, greater access is not just about the mission of the press but residents’ right to know how their government is operating.

In March the consumer group U.S. PIRG gave Maine a D- based on how it lists government spending data online. The determination was based on how searchable state data is, whether it includes a variety of types of spending, such as on tax credits and subsidies, and whether there are year-to-year comparisons.

Maine also earned an F in a March assessment of accountability and transparency. Maine was one of eight states to get the failing grade, based on the strength of laws that encourage openness.

The state has taken steps to improve, however. Gov. Paul LePage proposed and later signed a bill promoting transparency after the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting showed in January that the state had awarded $235 million between 2003 and 2010 to organizations affiliated with lawmakers and public officials.

LePage’s legislation, sponsored by Senate President Kevin Raye, requires legislators, executive branch officials and constitutional officers to disclose if the state paid them or their family members — in executive or management positions outside state government — more than $2,000.

And the Maine Senate voted unanimously in April to postpone a measure that would have exempted the governor’s office “working papers” from the Maine Freedom of Access Act.

When local school districts charge more for public information than outlined by law, or local governments attempt to hold public meetings in private, they are making it more difficult for Mainers to be informed about the very services for which they are taxed. We’ll keep advocating for greater government openness. Join us.

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