The provincial Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) is a vital piece of legislation that can be used to hold the government accountable and transparent – a crucial component in a contemporary democracy.
The media, and individual members of the public, have for years used FOI requests to access information from government and other public bodies that would otherwise be protected or deliberately withheld.
However, the effectiveness aspect of the act is on the verge of being seriously degraded.
The provincial government is changing the legislation, and making all active FOI requests public, before they are completed.
While that may sound reasonable, it will gravely damage the media’s ability to conduct investigations into government decisions and actions discreetly, releasing stories only when all information and sources have been pursued. Alerting other media, government officials and the public of an ongoing investigation is a deep disincentive to journalists, and may well compromise confidential sources.
Finance Minister Mike de Jong has indicated the impetus for the change is to help applicants in tracking their FOI requests. We challenge this reasoning. The inquiries can be followed by calling the FOI analyst of the agency to which the request has been directed. Other options exist, such as a password protected database.
The perception can be formed that the underlying reason for making FOI requests public before they are complete is to discourage the public and the media from using the legislation.
Other changes to the Act are laudable. The government looks to be more proactive in disclosing certain information – without the submission of an FOI request – and aims to improve its responses to FOI applications.
However, we urge the minister to abandon the automatic public release change and allow the Act to continue to be the effective tool it was intended to be. That’s the mark of an accountable government, willing to bear the scrutiny of its constituents and media watchdogs.