In response to the government of British Columbia’s proposal to add a $25 fee for general and non-personal Freedom of Information requests, professors at journalism schools across the province recently penned an open letter to minister of citizens’ service, Lisa Beare, asking for the government not to go through with the proposed fee.
FOI requests can be made to the government as a way to obtain records and information created and compiled by public bodies in B.C.
Citizens can use these requests to access their own personal records and any other information available to the public that is kept in official record. Currently, there is no fee for FOI requests. However, if the information is expected to take more than three hours, a fee is issued. Fees may also be issued for shipping the requested information.
If this additional proposed fee is approved, this will make B.C. the third province in Canada to charge $25 for FOI request, after Alberta and Nunavut.
The letter stated that the fee would be five times higher than the federal charge for Access to Information requests, which is currently $5 for each request.
The letter said the fee would impact student newspapers and journalism students alike who already have to pay for tuition and textbooks.
Chad Skelton, chair of the Kwantlen Polytechnic University journalism department, says this proposed fee is “bad news” for all journalists and a “big disincentive” for those who want to file requests.
“I think it’s going to particularly hit smaller newsrooms harder,” Skelton says. “So community newspapers, small online publications that don’t have big budgets.”
Skelton is worried this proposed fee will discourage people from requesting information from the government.
“It wasn’t that long ago that the NDP was an opposition, and they were filing more Freedom of Information requests than anyone else,” says Skelton.
Skelton says that stories that involve FOI records often require filing multiple requests.
For example, if a journalist is working on a story about how COVID-19 cases are trending across the province, they will need to contact various health authorities, and with more requests, the fees pile up.
FOI requests are not only filed by journalists. Citizens, activist groups, and others also request information from the government and the fee would make it harder for them.
Recently, B.C. Premier John Horgan said there have also been a number of FOI requests from opposition parties.
“Unfortunately, this is possibly a symptom of the NDP feeling pretty comfortable in government, and they’ve been in government long enough now that they forget that there was a time in the past — and there might be a time in the future — when they need FOI requests to hold the government accountable,” Skelton says.
He says some of the language included in how requests are regulated is “excessively broad” and that trying to limit the public’s ability to access information freely makes it hard to hold the government accountable, Skelton says.
“We as citizens elected the government, and in a really sort of basic fundamental way, we should be able to know what the government is up to,” Skelton says.
“There needs to be reasonable limits on it, but that to even ask for information would cost $25, I think on principle, is offensive.”