This is International Right to Know Week, a week in honour of the public’s right to information held by their governments.
The week is being celebrated in different ways in the 105 countries around the world with right to information laws. Here in British Columbia the City of Penticton is celebrating it in a spectacularly disappointing way. They have decided they are going to charge the media $20 to file an Freedom of Information request with the City.
At their meeting on September 20th Penticton Council agreed to a new schedule of fees and charges. Included in the schedule was “New fee for commercial freedom of information request $20.” Neither the schedule nor discussions at the meeting made clear that one of the targets for the new fee was the media.
Speaking later to the media, spokespeople for the Council clarified they were targeting lawyers and insurance companies. The Mayor chimed in to make clear they were targeting the media as well.
I think there is a pretty good case to be made that lawyers should be able to get information out of local governments without their clients having to pay for it. There are plenty of exemptions if the local government thinks the release of information would hurt their interests anyway.
But targeting the media is particularly disturbing. Say what you will about the “mainstream media” – they play a critical role in keeping the public informed about what is going on. At many council meetings across Canada, the seats in the gallery would be empty were it not for the junior reporter assigned to City Hall.
As an editorial in the Penticton Herald put it, it’s not about the money. The editorial continued,
“If council is up front from the word go on most issues (Skaha Lake Park, the hockey dorm disaster, LED lighting, casino revenues… to name just a few), there would be no need for the constant barrage of FOI requests. Penticton City Hall has a poor reputation for responding in a timely manner and often supplies incomplete correspondence.”
Happily, it may not be a done deal. One councillor has promised to bring the issue up at their next meeting to provide an exemption for the media.
I wish her well. Right to Know Week will be over by then, but getting rid of measures to discourage newspapers, radio and television stations and even online media from reporting on City Hall would still be a great way to celebrate.