At What Cost?

Illustration by Sena Law

B.C. journalists are now faced with a price tag when in search for public information

By Emily Lyth

While former Liberal premier Christy Clark was flying around B.C. on private jets in 2011, Bob Mackin was filing Freedom of Information requests to the provincial government to find out whose money she was using—and how much of it.

A former reporter for Vancouver’s 24 hours daily newspaper, and a freelance journalist at the time, Mackin developed a routine of periodically filing FOI requests to look into Clark’s flight expenses after he noticed that her campaign air travel was being funded by party donors. By early 2016, Clark had spent nearly $500,000 on charter flights.

“That attracted a lot of attention,” says Mackin. “Back then, the NDP was the opposition and they saw the story and brought that to question period. Other media outlets started to ask questions too, based on my story. It became quite a controversy.” 

Mackin estimates that he filed about 1,000 FOI requests a year prior to 2021. But these days, Mackin says he’ll have to scale back his requests—and file them in a more targeted fashion. 

The reason? In October 2021, the B.C. government announced a plan to begin charging a $25 fee for filing Freedom of Information requests in order to access public information. 

The move garnered criticism in the media across the province, with complaints that it would disproportionately affect journalists without the financial means to pay for several requests, particularly students.

Chad Skelton, chair of the department of journalism and communications at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, says the sole purpose of the fee is to discourage people from filing requests.

“We as citizens have a right to know what our government is up to, and to have our questions about government answered,” says Skelton. “And I think we should have that right, and there shouldn’t be unnecessary obstacles to exercising that right.”

Skelton headed the decision to write an open letter to B.C.’s Minister of Citizens’ Services Lisa Beare addressing concerns about the fee. The letter was signed by the chairs of other journalism departments across B.C., including Kamal Al-Solaylee at UBC and Erica Bulman at Langara College. It dubbed the fee “a step backward for government transparency and openness,” as well as “particularly unfair to requesters of limited means.”

Two months after sending the letter, Skelton says he received a formal response that explained why the fee was being implemented, but which neglected to address the specific concerns of university students.

In November 2021, the government officially implemented a $10 fee for FOI requests in an amendment to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The document states that the fee is meant “to bring B.C. in line with other Canadian jurisdictions that also have an application fee.” While lower than initially proposed, Mackin says the fee is still too high. 

Skelton estimates he filed between 100 to 300 requests a year during the 17 years he spent as an investigative and data journalist at the Vancouver Sun. Now Skelton says that newsrooms will have to cover the cost of their journalists’ FOI requests, which will run them a yearly bill in the thousands of dollars. Skelton says this is especially worrisome given the already stretched budgets of many local newsrooms.

The same worry spreads to freelance journalists like Mackin, who has been running his own news site since 2017,

“Ultimately, this is the public’s information,” says Mackin, “and the governments, the politicians, the bureaucrats —they are only stewards. They may think they own the information, because they’re in charge, because they’re in power. But they’re in power because of us.”

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