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UK government running ‘Orwellian’ unit to block release of ‘sensitive’ information

Secretive Cabinet Office 'Clearing House' for Freedom of Information requests also accused of “blacklisting” journalists; openDemocracy launching a legal bid for transparency
 
Peter Geoghegan/Jenna Corderoy/Lucas Amin
 
Part 3 - ‘Jenna Corderoy is a journalist’
 
openDemocracy has had first hand experience of how the Clearing House slows down or obstructs FOI requests, and profiles journalists, on a number of different occasions.

In February 2020, openDemocracy journalist Jenna Corderoy sent an FOI request to the Ministry of Defence about meetings with short-lived special advisor Andrew Sabisky. The MoD subsequently complained internally that “due to the time spent in getting an approval from Clearing House, the FOI requestor has put in a complaint to [the FOI regulator] the ICO”. 

The MoD refused the Sabisky request after 196 days, which is more than six times the normal limit for responding to an FOI request.

Separately, when Corderoy sent a Freedom of Information request to the Attorney General’s Office, staff at the office wrote in internal emails: “Just flagging that Jenna Corderoy is a journalist” and “once the response is confirmed, I’ll just need [redacted] to sign off on this before it goes out, since Jenna Corderoy is a reporter for openDemocracy”. 

Today’s findings on the operation of the Clearing House add to mounting questions about the British government’s approach to transparency and press freedom.

Earlier this year, Number 10 was heavily criticised after it barred openDemocracy from COVID press briefings. The Ministry of Defence was also subsequently accused of ‘blacklisting’ DeclassifiedUK after the department refused to provide comment to the investigative website.

Edin Omanovic, advocacy director at Privacy International said that “the point of Freedom of Information is to access information from individual authorities themselves, not from a centralised body within the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office should not be interfering.

Silke Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch said, "We're appalled that such important information rights have been so disrespected by the government. The centralisation of difficult FOIs, the secrecy of this list and the fact that our names have been circulated around Whitehall is seriously chilling. This is a shameful reflection on the government's attitude towards transparency."

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