It was rather ironic that news of the City of Victoria’s move to limit access to information to a media outlet it found vexatious came during Right to Know Week in Canada.
Attendees at a forum on the topic held last week in Victoria had a perfect opportunity to explore why any move to prevent the release of data affecting public funds would have a creeping effect.
As was brought up at the discussion, the idea of open government and open data is rather trendy, with everyone from civic councillors to provincial and federal opposition members crowing about its importance in maintaining transparency and public confidence.
It’s one thing to have open data to allow the public to keep an eye on their elected officials and civil servants on day-to-day business. But that does not preclude the need for strong Freedom of Information legislation to allow media to get to the bottom of sticky issues that politicians and staffers would rather not release to the public realm.
Not having enough resources to handle the flow of FOI requests is not acceptable as a fallback position. If governments were truly more open, there would likely be less of a need for such requests.
Look at the province under the B.C. Liberals, for example. In the last decade, the number of FOI requests has grown exponentially.
In the City of Victoria’s case, the media outlet being singled out in question has made 49 FOI requests to the city since 2009. Not an unreasonable amount, if a jurisdiction is properly set up to deal with them.
That the city feels that is too many indicates media in Victoria that haven’t been filing enough such requests as a way to help ensure public bodies maintain some semblance of transparency.
It’s no surprise many media outlets are reluctant to engage in such in-depth investigation, with tight deadlines in place and competition stiff to get stories out quickly.
The FOI search process is frequently long and drawn out, and by the time the information is secured, it is essentially stale-dated.
Journalists who do pursue the full, more broad truth on an issue of importance to the greater community are doing more public good than most citizens realize.
It’s up to journalists and news managers, then, to highlight disregard of transparency to teach the public of its importance.
Anything less only contributes to the problem.