The provincial Freedom of Information and 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 of 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 (and Abbotsford MLA) Mike de Jong has indicated the impetus behind the change is to assist applicants in tracking their FOI requests. We challenge this reasoning. FOIs can be followed by calling the FOI analyst of the agency to which the request has been directed. Other options for that process also 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, and thereby giving government a layer of protection it currently does not have.
Other changes to FIPPA are laudable, such as the proactive disclosure of a range of government information, without the necessity of an FOI request, and an improved government response to applications.
However, we urge Minister de Jong to abandon the automatic public release change, and allow FIPPA 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.