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New US president Barack Obama has ordered government agencies to release more information under that country's Freedom of Information Act, reversing the previous administration's policy of withholding information.

The US president has ordered government departments and agencies to presume that information should be released to FOI requesters.

"The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears," he said in a memo to the heads of executive departments and agencies.

"Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public," he said.

Under the administration of George W Bush the heads of those agencies were told by attorney general John Ashcroft to withhold information if a case could be made for doing so. He promised that the administration would back such decisions with defences to any court challenge they faced.

"All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government," said the memo.

Obama also said that agencies should not wait to be asked for information, but should volunteer it.

"The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public," said the memo. "They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely."

Obama said that he had asked the attorney general to issue instructions to departments and agencies on the release of information in line with the new policy.

The move was welcomed by governance activists.

"The fact that Mr Obama took these actions on his very first day in office signals a new era in government accountability," Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told the Associated Press news service. "He is turning the page and moving away from the secrecy of the last administration."

See: The memo

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