Staff writer

Use it to improve it — that was the message two American experts on information disclosure law offered Japan this week while speaking in Tokyo about the U.S. experience with the law.

After nearly two decades of tenacious lobbying, Japanese advocates of a freedom of information law celebrated when the bill was finally submitted to the Diet late last month. With deliberation slated to begin this session, establishment of the nation’s first national information disclosure law is within sight.

But creation of a law is just the first step, the U.S. experts said at the Tokyo American Center, a branch of the United States Information Service. “After 32 years, the American Freedom of Information Act is still being tested, still being challenged. It is always a constant battle, and those battles will only increase,” said Steve Geimann, senior editor of the subscription newsletter Communications Daily and a former president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

After establishment, the new law will need to be broken in, the speakers said, emphasizing that a constant process of using the law, including going to court for interpretations when necessary will help weave the law into the country’s legal and social fabric. “In particular, I believe that NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) are very key to the process of using an information disclosure law effectively,” said lawyer Sheryl Walter, a longtime student, user and commentator on FOIA.

Currently deputy special counsel to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, she is now formulating legislation for the committee. Because NGOs are run by experts who have more time than journalists, they can greatly facilitate the successful application of information disclosure laws, she said.

Application of the law could also portend great changes for the nation, the two said. “I suggest that your new information disclosure law will create a new culture because this is what happened in the United States. It will create a new culture within government in which the bureaucracy recognizes that it is in their interest to be open,” Walter said.

She also warned that citizens will have to monitor the government carefully to make sure it does not charge exorbitant fees for information, deterring potential requesters.

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