Quest for food stamp data lands newspaper at Supreme Court

After initially opposing the information’s release, the federal government reversed course after the Argus Leader took it to court and won. (AFP)
Updated 21 April 2019
0

Quest for food stamp data lands newspaper at Supreme Court

  • Luther, who now works for InvestigateTV, said it’s “transparency 101” that “taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going”
  • The Trump administration is backing the grocery stores in arguing against the information’s release

WASHINGTON: In the summer of 2010, reporters at South Dakota’s Argus Leader newspaper decided to request data about the government’s food assistance program, previously known as food stamps. They thought the information could lead to a series of stories and potentially help them identify fraud in the now $65 billion-a-year program.
They sent a stream of what they thought were routine requests for information to Washington.
Government officials eventually sent back some information about the hundreds of thousands of stores nationwide where the food program’s participants could use their benefits. But the government withheld information reporters saw as crucial: how much each store received annually from the program.
Trying to get that data has taken the paper more than eight years and landed it at the Supreme Court, which will hear the case Monday.
Argus Leader news director Cory Myers, who directs a staff of 18 at the Sioux Falls paper, says getting the information is about “knowing how our government is operating” and “knowing what government is doing with our tax money.”
A supermarket trade association opposing the information’s release argues that the information being sought is confidential. The Supreme Court’s decision in the case could be narrow or could significantly affect the interpretation of a law that grants the public access to government records.
The Argus Leader is owned by USA Today publisher Gannett and is the largest newspaper in South Dakota. It wrote about the government’s initial release of information. But Jonathan Ellis, one of the reporters behind the requests, said there’s more to learn if the paper gets what it’s seeking.
Ellis said he would like to write about the companies who profit the most from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program , called SNAP. He would like to analyze how successful efforts to involve farmers’ markets in the program have been. And he is still hoping to use the data to identify stores that seem like outliers, an indication of potential fraud.
Megan Luther, the other reporter behind the requests, said the paper has been fighting for the information for reasons beyond “there’s a good story there.” Luther, who now works for InvestigateTV, said it’s “transparency 101” that “taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going.”
The paper has gotten close to getting the data before.
After initially opposing the information’s release, the federal government reversed course after the Argus Leader took it to court and won. But the Virginia-based Food Marketing Institute , a trade association representing grocery stores and supermarket chains, stepped in to continue the fight. The group lost an appeal, and the paper hoped it would soon get the data. Then the Supreme Court took the case.
The Food Marketing Institute, which declined interviews before Monday’s arguments, has said in court papers that the public already has access to a lot of data about SNAP. But SNAP sales data by store is confidential “much the same way how much business grocers do in cash, credit, debit, checks or even gift cards is confidential,” wrote Food Marketing Institute president and CEO Leslie G. Sarasin in a blog post last month.
To decide whether the information should be released, the Supreme Court will have to interpret the federal Freedom of Information Act .
It gives citizens, including reporters, access to federal agencies’ records with certain exceptions. In the Argus Leader’s case, the US Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, argued that disclosing the data the paper sought was barred by FOIA’s “exemption 4.” It tells the government to withhold “confidential” “commercial or financial information” obtained from third parties.
It will be up to the court to determine whether what the paper is seeking counts as “confidential.”
The Trump administration is backing the grocery stores in arguing against the information’s release. The Associated Press is among dozens of media organizations that have signed a legal brief supporting the Argus Leader.
Myers, the Argus Leader’s news director, said that in the years it has taken for the paper’s case to reach the Supreme Court, the paper has continued to do the kind of investigative reporting it was attempting to do in seeking the SNAP data.
In South Dakota, he said, “there are more stories and more malfeasance than one newsroom can root out, but we certainly try.”
The case is 18-481 Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media.


Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

Updated 21 May 2019
0

Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

  • A recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan
  • Journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom

KABUL: Beneath the gaze of the TV cameras a woman begins speaking, at first softly but with growing passion as she faces the "Butcher of Kabul" across a crowded auditorium and asks if he wants to apologise for alleged war crimes.
Without missing a beat, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ruthless former warlord blamed for rocket attacks which reduced much of the Afghan capital to rubble in the 1990s, declined to do so.
The dramatic moment during a recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan, where -- for now -- traumatised civilians can stand and at least try to hold powerful men to account, live on camera.
"Years ago, these kind of questions could get you killed, but now people can challenge the most dangerous people in mainstream and social media," Mustafa Rahimi, a university student, said after watching the debate.
But today, even as hundreds of media outlets proliferate across Afghanistan, consumers and journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom.
"We are concerned about a total or a partial ban on media," Sediqullah Khaliq, the director of Hewad TV and radio in Kandahar -- the birthplace of Taliban -- told AFP.
"There is fear that we may go back to a media blackout or having a state-controlled press."
While in power, the Taliban raged against traditional forms of mass communication and entertainment, banning television, movies and allowing only Islamist programming or propaganda to be broadcast on the only radio station, Voice of Sharia.
Anyone caught watching TV faced punishment and risked having their television set smashed and then displayed from a lamppost.
Almost all electronic products were outlawed as un-Islamic. For a while, trees in Kabul fluttered with the magnetic ribbon tape from destroyed cassettes.
Photographs of living things were illegal, and ownership of a video player could lead to a public lashing.
Afghanistan is the world's deadliest place for journalists, who face many risks covering the conflict and who have sometimes been targeted for doing their job.
Nine journalists, including AFP Kabul's chief photographer Shah Marai, were killed in an Islamic State attack in April 2018.
Media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that 2018 was the deadliest year on record for journalists in Afghanistan, with at least 15 media workers killed while working.
Despite the risks, hundreds of media organisations have blossomed since 2001, and today there are more than 100 television channels, 284 radio stations and just over 400 newspapers and magazines, according to a government report.
With one of the world's lowest literacy rates, television and radio play a huge role in Afghan culture, and Afghans have grown accustomed to outlets holding their politicians to account.
Warlords, politicians, Taliban sympathisers and government officials are openly challenged in televised debates, radio programmes and on social media.
"We now play live music, women call in and share their problems on the radio. But even if the Taliban allow radios, I don't think they would like our programmes," said Mera Hamdam, a presenter at Zama private radio in Kandahar.
"There is huge concern that we will lose all our achievements," he said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said if they return to power, the insurgents would follow an Islamic interpretation of freedom of expression.
"We won't allow propaganda, insults and humiliation to people in society and religious values. We will allow those who work for the betterment of the society," he told AFP.
A sixth round of talks between the US and the Taliban wrapped up last week in Doha, with apparently little progress being made on several key issues.
The two foes have for months been trying to hammer out a deal that could see foreign forces leave Afghanistan in return for a ceasefire, talks between Kabul and the Taliban, and a guarantee the country will not be used as a safe haven for terror groups.
But observers worry that in a rush to quit Afghanistan after nearly 18 gruelling years of war, America might not push for safeguards of protections many Afghans now take for granted, including media freedoms and improved rights for women and other marginalised people.
"Freedom of expression as a protective value should be incorporated into any document resulting from peace talks," NAI, a leading media support agency, said in a statement.
Rahimi, the university student, said he worried about Afghanistan going back to "the dark era".