Journalists claim FOIP fails at privacy and access to information

For many, privacy and access to information have been prominent topics, especially after recent National Security Association spying controversies to the Wikileaks information leaks.

However, for many Albertans, this may not seem relevant, especially at a provincial level.

The Sunshine Summit, held in Calgary on Sept. 25, 2013, sought to engage Albertans in the importance of this issue.

Journalists from all over the province came together to discuss issues concerning privacy and Albertan’s access to information.

“It’s very hard to get information from the people we elect and give our money to.”

– Catherine Ford, former editor at the Calgary Herald

Leading the discussion was Catherine Ford, a former editor at the Calgary Herald, who spoke about our government’s role as “gatekeepers.”

“It’s the gatekeepers that have the power to say yes or no,” Ford said. “It’s very hard to get information from the people we elect and give our money to.”

Ford said investigative journalism has begun to suffer the consequences of gatekeepers clamping down on media access. It has become harder for media organizations to send out investigative journalists to cover stories when not all the information is guaranteed to the journalist.

Ford argued that tax money should help pay for access to information.

Matt McClure, a data journalist and investigative reporter with the Calgary Herald said this action is impeding investigative journalism. “Stories like this don’t come out anymore because the gatekeepers are worried that it will embarrass the companies.”

McClure spoke about the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy act. FOIP protects an individual’s privacy from both the collection and the disclosure of information by public bodies.

“There’s pervasive culture of secrecy in this province,” McClure said. “Despite efforts to get at this (information), too often the FOIP doesn’t work and journalists are left with huge fee estimates.”

Charles Rusnell, a reporter with the CBC, said that the regulatory body of FOIP, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta, has ultimately faltered.

Charles Rusnell talks about his experience with dealing with the commissioners officers and wanting information on certain government issues.

Photo by Victoria Pizarro and Andrew SzekeresRusnell charged that the office is understaffed, not properly trained and dependent upon the Alberta government for renewal with contracts.

Russell argued FOIP needs to be run by a separate institution, adding, “Sometimes political bosses will give orders to delay requests for political reasons.”

To showcase the importance of access to information, Rusnell spoke of his article revealing financial ties between Albertan universities and colleges and political parties, between 2004 and 2008.

Alberta law states that public institutions are banned from donations to political parties.

Rusnell said that Calgary lawyer Joe Lougheed helped the University of Calgary circumvent the law by billing for hours he didn’t work and using the loophole to cover the cost for tickets to political fundraisers.

He added the practice was stopped when general counsel of the university, Charlene Anderson, was able to confront Lougheed.

Through a FOIP request, Rusnell accessed key information for this story, and he was able to give Anderson credit in his report.

“She is now a court appointed judge,” Rusnell said. “That is what happens in Alberta when you stand up.”

Rusnell also brought up Alberta’s fleet of planes for governmental use. “Alberta is the only province in Canada that maintains a fleet of airplanes,” Rusnell said. “They treat it like their own private jets.”

Rusnell pushed through his FOIP request from the Klein government, and after spending nine months and $900, he received it…two days after the 2005 provincial election. “Whenever there’s an election, they just don’t process requests,” Rusnell said.

Rusnell added that it took him a FOIP request on his own previous FOIP request to discover that his first request was altered to ensure it did not come out until after the election. McClure noted, journalists and newspapers must take responsibility as well.

“Newspapers should plead guilty. They are using short term thinking,” he said

“It’s what we can do today and doing what our readers want to see so we can stay relevant in our communities.”

aszekeres@cjournal.ca
vpizarro@cjournal.ca