Journalism schools across B.C., including BCIT in Burnaby, are urging Premier John Horgan and Minister of Citizens' Services Lisa Beare not to adopt a new bill that features changes to the province's freedom of information (FOI) request system.
On Oct. 18, Beare unveiled a new proposal that would include a $25 fee for FOI requests and other measures while saying they would help people access services faster while strengthening privacy protections.
Since then, the province has been under fire for the potential changes from critics who say it will not increase government transparency and it will add roadblocks for those wanting to discover Victoria’s inner workings.
Critics say the changes could thwart the uncovering of government scandals as current law allows and harm citizens’ rights to know how their tax dollars are being spent.
In a letter dated for Oct. 21, 2021, journalism educators wrote to Beare to express their concern and disappointment over the possible changes.
"As journalism educators, we are deeply disappointed by the B.C.'s government's plans to begin charging a $25 fee to file a Freedom of Information (FOI) request," the letter said.
"B.C.'s proposed fee would be five times as high as a federal request ($5) and the highest fee in the country, tied with Alberta and Nunavut.
"We believe this new fee will be particularly onerous for student journalists, who often use FOI requests to uncover newsworthy information which they then publish through student newspapers. Requiring students who are already struggling to pay for tuition and textbooks to pay $25 every time they want to access government records will discourage many of them from making such requests."
The educators also point to the fact that journalists, activists and members of the public use such requests to hold government to account and help keep citizens informed.
"The value to the public of the information uncovered by FOI requests is perhaps best illustrated by the fact your own government publishes all the information released in response to FOI requests online, so all citizens can access it," the letter continues.
"We appreciate that some people may abuse the FOI system, placing undue pressure on government resources. But there are better ways of dealing with that challenge than a blanket $25 fee. The Act already allows government agencies to charge requesters for any search that takes longer than three hours. And the government could impose a fee on requesters who make more than, say, 100 requests a year.
"This new fee is a step backward for government transparency and openness and is particularly unfair to requesters of limited means, like students. We strongly urge you not to adopt this fee."
Educators that signed the letter include BCIT broadcast and online journalism program head Connie Monk; Kwantlen Polytechnic University department of journalism and communication studies chair Chad Skelton; Erica Bulman, department of journalism chair at Langara College; Shannon Smurl, department of journalism, communication and new media chair at Thompson Rivers University; and Kamal Al-Solaylee, director of school of journalism, writing and media at UBC.
Provincial information and privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy has already raised concerns about getting rid of requirements to maintain data in Canada and about protecting government documents from destruction.
B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has weighed in, saying the government’s Bill 22, Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Amendment Act, 2021 shows disregard for British Columbians, the Legislature and B.C. laws.
“The legislation falls short,” said association executive director Jason Woywada.
“This government keeps saying one thing and doing another. They say they support greater government transparency but then introduced proposed legislation that leaves major gaps in our existing law unaddressed.”
Woywada said Victoria is introducing fees for access to information initial requests rather than making the system less secretive and more accessible.
Beare said the fee could be about $25, calling it a modest fee and not a barrier to anyone.
“It’s not at all modest,” said University of Victoria journalism professor Sean Holman, a longtime user of the FOI system as an investigative journalist covering B.C. politics.
“The only other provincial jurisdiction that has a $25 fee is Alberta, which is one of the most secretive jurisdictions in North America,” he said. “This is the equivalent of erecting a 100-foot wall around government to protect itself. This is punishment for anyone who is interested in getting the truth out of government.”
At a news conference yesterday (Oct. 21), Horgan defended the possible changes, saying they aren't trying to restrict access to information the public might want to know about.
“It's not our intention to restrict people's individual access,” he said.
“There has been an extraordinary proliferation in requests for information from political parties, and full disclosure, when I was in Opposition, we used the Freedom of Information Act effectively to understand why governments were making decisions.”
Horgan also touted his government's “proactive disclosure” of information. But throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the B.C. government has been criticized for withholding COVID-19 information that other provinces have regularly provided.
With files from Nicholas Johansen, Castanet, and Jeremy Hainsworth, Glacier Media