According to the Freedom of Information Act, a state body is a public trustee when it comes to the information in its possession. This is why there are very few cases in which non-disclosure of information by the authorities can be justified. Gisha submits dozens of Freedom of Information applications to state authorities every year. Unfortunately, the responses provided by the officials charged with answering such requests in various government agencies are quite astounding, especially in how creative they are at not providing information. Below are some of the ways in which the state delays and prevents the publication of information.
1. First, take your time – the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) stipulates that an application for information must be answered within 30 days. If necessary, this period of time may be extended by a further 30 days, and in cases in which the requested information is particularly complex or extensive, a further 60-day extension may be granted. All in all, the maximum time limit for responding to a FOIA request is 120 days. Although it does not take that long to provide a response to most FOIA requests, in the first six months of 2013, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) took advantage of the full period of time allowed according to the act in four out of five requests submitted by Gisha.
2. Say you didn’t understand the application – Have the 120 days run out and you still don’t have a response? No problem! When the deadline arrives, write and say you didn’t understand the request. This is how the official in charge of implementing the Freedom of Information Act at COGAT dealt with a request he received. After waiting for 120 days, he sent a response (Hebrew) in which he stated that a particular section of the application was not clear and demanded we rephrase it.
3. Start counting from a convenient date – If 120 days have passed and you’re still not sure how to respond to the FOIA request, you can just say that the count began on a date that is later than the one on which the application was filed. This is what the official in charge of implementing the Freedom of Information Act at COGAT did: After the deadline for responding to an application Gisha had submitted passed, he notified us that he would consider the date on which he consulted with the Freedom of Information unit at the Ministry of Justice, 198 days after the original application was submitted, as the “date on which processing of your application commenced” (Hebrew).
4. Transfer the application to another authority – When we asked COGAT for a procedure that the authorities had referred to, the “Procedure for Handling Requests of Israeli Residents of the Gaza Strip”, we were told that the information was under the purview of the Gaza District Coordination Office (DCO). The Gaza DCO, on the other hand, said the information was in the possession of the Population and Immigration Authority. When we sent (Hebrew) a letter addressed to COGAT and the Population and Immigration Authority jointly, COGAT said (Hebrew) the latter was responsible for this issue, but the latter responded said they had no such procedure (Hebrew). Eleven months of back and forth with the authorities and the requested information still has not been received.
5. Charge a fee – The Freedom of Information Act stipulates that “no fee shall be collected for a request which seeks information that should be accessible to the public”. Yet, this provision does not prevent the authorities from demanding payment for information they should have provided in the first place. Despite the fact that we clarified (Hebrew) to the Israeli Airports Authority, in correspondence, that no fee should be levied for the application as the requested information was a protocol the authority should have published on its own initiative, the response (Hebrew) included a request for a fee payment in order to begin processing.
6. Say the application requires an unreasonable allocation of resources – The act allows an authority not to respond to a FOIA request if doing so would require an unreasonable allocation of resources. This clause sometimes leads to absurd responses. So, for example, in response to a FOIA request regarding the settlement procedure, the official in charge of implementing the Freedom of Information Act at COGAT said that the requested information did not exist and that the breakdown that was requested (for information that did not exist) required an unreasonable allocation of resources (Hebrew).
7. Finally, say you don’t have the information – If all else fails, you can just say you don’t have the information or that it doesn’t exist. When we asked for a list of the types of food that were permitted to enter Gaza, the state said no such list existed. Following legal action in which a military official was required to support this response with a signed affidavit, the state delivered the aforementioned non-existent list.
Israel’s obligations toward Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip and its policy with respect to Gaza’s border crossings are a matter of public and political debate. This is why the transparency afforded by the Freedom of Information Act is so important – in order to have an informed public debate.