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Opinion: Privacy concerns can't be used as an excuse to withhold public information

Tim Shoults with the NewsMedia Association argues information is tightly controlled and guarded by the B.C government. "Our members find the complete government control of information and the narrative around the pandemic to be concerning."
The Parliament Building in Victoria, B.C.

Ever studied for a test after taking it?

Of course not — it’s way too late.

Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening when it comes to freedom of information in B.C.

Last fall, the provincial government passed Bill 22, amending the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and allowing the government to start charging a fee for FOI requests.

This month, the B.C. Legislative Assembly of B.C.’s Special Committee to Review the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act was holding hearings, as they are required to do by law every five years. With the amendment just passed, this committee was basically asked to study whether or not the barn door should be opened months after the horse had already busted right through it.

The group that represents this newspaper and more than 90 other ones like it across the province, the BC and Yukon Community NewsMedia Association, was asked to present to that committee. Here’s a version of what we told them:

Our members have a combined print circulation of 1.5 million copies and adult readership of almost two million British Columbians every single week. Online they draw more than 11 million unique visitors and more than 33 million pageviews to their websites every month.

These media outlets deliver more than the news. The information we deliver, in print or online, provides readers with a sense of connection, of identity and of belonging to their community.

Between us, our members probably deal with more of the 2,900 organizations covered by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act than any other organization, from provincial ministries and Crown corporations to municipal governments, regional districts, health authorities, universities and school districts. In the vast majority of cases, our members are the only media covering those institutions in the communities they serve.

Providing accountability

Freedom of information requests are a critical tool for our members, who collectively file hundreds of requests per year for coverage which provides accountability for local institutions to our readers.

It isn’t easy work for community news media reporters, who don’t have single beats to cover, or the luxury of spending weeks or even days on investigative work. Instead, stories like those come together in hundreds of stolen moments, pieces of downtime between attending council meetings, racing to take pictures or video at the local high school, covering minor hockey, laying out pages, editing copy and posting stories to websites and social media channels.

It becomes even more difficult when FOI requests required to do that work become more challenging to file, more expensive and less productive.

With regard to fees, it goes almost without saying that in an era where traditional news media outlets, funded primarily by local advertising revenue, are competing not against other local media outlets, but against global giants like Facebook and Google, for advertising, any increase to costs is a damper on our ability to maintain the FOI requests we do make, let alone to make more.

But since the legislation is changed and those fees are in place, we’d like to focus on some other aspects of FOI. Our members’ experience has been that information — even relatively innocuous information like statistics from which it would not be possible to extrapolate anyone’s personal details — has been tightly controlled and guarded, particularly when it comes to attempting to gather information about the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years.

Our members find the complete government control of information and the narrative around the pandemic to be concerning. Without raw facts, we have no way of knowing what we’re being told is the truth on issues of huge public importance.

Once in a while, a medical health officer will let slip a piece of information during an interview that is actually useful. But most requests funnelled through media contacts simply fall into the abyss. It seems as if many people at such high levels are required to vet even the most basic request, and very little gets given out as a result, usually based on a directive from the PHO not to provide anyone's “personal information.”

Freedom of information and protection of privacy naturally go hand in hand — like freedom of expression or public health restrictions, they must seek a perpetual balance.

But what we are seeing is that protection of privacy is increasingly used as an excuse to curtail freedom of information even when that balance is not at risk, and that cannot stand.

We think public information should be deemed to be public by default unless there is a compelling and truly privacy-based reason for it to be withheld.

Murray Rankin, a true champion of FOI in Canada and one of the fathers of B.C.’s Freedom of Information Act, said it best when he was a federal member of parliament in 2017, speaking about changes to the federal Access to Information Act: “Information delayed is information denied.”

We’d love to hear what he thinks about what has become of FOI in B.C. today, but he has been a little tough to get a hold of on the subject. He is, of course, busy as a cabinet minister in the provincial government that just imposed that new FOI charge.

If he weren’t bound by cabinet confidentiality, perhaps he might be leading the crusade to make sure freedom of information stays truly free.

We need to retake that test.

Tim Shoults is vice-president of the BC and Yukon Community NewsMedia Association.

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