After British Columbia started charging $10 for each request for secret government information, media outlets dropped their applications by 80 per cent while opposition political parties halved their number, according to a new report from the provincial privacy watchdog.
B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy released on Thursday his office’s analysis of the first six months of freedom-of-information requests after the New Democrat government’s controversial levy came into effect in late November, 2021. The report found media applications decreased to 115 from 575 during the same period a year prior.
“Any time there appears to be a barrier to access to records for people whose job it is to hold the government to account that is a matter of concern,” Mr. McEvoy said in an interview Thursday.
Mr. McEvoy’s office said that of 14 jurisdictions in Canada with access-to-information laws, seven of them don’t charge for requests. B.C.’s $10 fee is only surpassed by Alberta and Nunavut charging $25. The federal government, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island all charge $5 to request official information, according to data from last year provided by the commissioner.
Mr. McEvoy made eight recommendations to the province and other public bodies charging this fee, ranging from establishing a policy for when they will refund this levy to ensuring applicants have a range of payment options, and can do so anonymously if they wish.
But, he said, the fees themselves should be scrapped altogether.
“These are the public’s records, so to be asking the public for additional funds for the records that are theirs, in my view, is not appropriate,” said Mr. McEvoy, who has been a vocal opponent of the province’s creation of the fee.
The commissioner’s review focused on the provincial government, as it receives by far the most of these requests in British Columbia. But, the report said, the office also reached out to 109 other public bodies – such as large municipal governments and police departments – to see if they were drafting new application fees. Mr. McEvoy said 24 indicated they were now charging one and another 24 were considering following suit.
“We would encourage those 85 public bodies who are not charging the fee to not do so,” he said.
Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, said the results of Thursday’s report show the province has thrown a “monkey wrench” into what many experts had considered the best freedom-of-information, or FOI, system in the country. Charging journalists or anyone more money for complicated requests that require staff to retrieve and collate thousands of pages of documents is reasonable, he said. But a blanket fee takes the “free out of the freedom of information” and hinders the media from doing its job of keeping governments accountable for their actions.
“Doing FOI-related stories takes time and it takes resources,” said Mr. Jolly, whose organization gave the B.C. government its annual tongue-in-cheek Code of Silence award in 2021 for the fee. “A lot of journalists now might not have the time to follow the money in the way that they traditionally would in the past, [or] to file a dozen requests using various keywords.”
Lisa Beare, whose Ministry of Citizens’ Services oversees the province’s information access regime, issued a statement saying she will review the report considering the commissioner’s recommendations. Her statement also said B.C. is increasing the amount of information it discloses to the public.
At the time the New Democrats proposed the new fees, former premier John Horgan defended the costs as necessary to deal with the high volume of requests from the BC Liberal opposition, but also from media. Citizens can also use it.
“I believe that thousands and thousands and thousands of requests are not designed to better understand why decisions are being made, but instead they’re acting as surveillance, looking over the shoulder of public officials,” he told reporters at the time.
The commissioner’s report also found the fee had a profound effect on political parties, with their requests dropping from 1,240 in the same period in the year prior to 518 applications in the six months after the fee.
Peter Milobar, finance critic for the BC Liberal Party, said the system has not only become more expensive but also slower. “The whole premise of them doing this doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny, whatsoever, and it’s not too late to reverse course,” he said.
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