Welcome to Freedom of Information for Dummies by Ottawa-based CBC journalist, author and FOI specialist, Dean Beeby.
In 2015, every jurisdiction in Canada has an FOI law, Beeby says. Today we are going to focus on the federal act.
"On a day to day basis, it only costs about five dollars per request" - Five dollars buys you about 125 pages of information, a CD, an email attachment and five hours of research
"The issue of money is a non-issue," Beeby says, regardless of the size of your newsroom.
An applicant must receive a response by 30 days but this could include asking for an extension, according to Beeby
"We are in the news business, not the history business. Delays are the fundamental problem."
"The act has not been updated since 1983," Beeby says, even before the word "digital" was integral to our vocabulary
"You're working with an archaic piece of legislature," he says, adding that the first decade of the legislation was what many call the "Golden Ages"
Although there is an ombudsman, there really is no policing power when it comes to the FOI process, Beeby says
Beeby explains how there is empirical data that proves that once the government finds out you are a journalist, the request takes weeks longer to fill
Beeby believes it's a "tragedy" that journalists are not the people who file the most FOIs because it is one of their journalistic duties. Many falsely assume most FOIs are done by journalists
In fact, in Ontario, only three per cent of FOI requests are made by journalists, he says
Question from the audience: What is the point of a journalist filing a request if it takes so long to hear back?
Answer: Waiting a few months certainly does not work for daily news but it's still valuable news months later
Delays are not the only problem. Security is a huge exemption or loophole since 9/11, Beeby says: "The circle that this covers is getting wider and wider"
"Cabinet records" are not defined how you may assume, Beeby says. They are becoming more and more difficult to access.
What should journalists do to combat these issues? "You need to file regularly," he says. Beeby files about four FOI requests every single working day which is about 500 to 1000 requests a year.
This "volume solution" will result in stories, he promises. He says that CDs and envelopes will start arriving and some of them will be useful.
Valuable Tip: "When you're asking for a record, don't limit your request to a category," he says. "Ask for all records, including a list of sources... I use the word 'etc.'"
Another great tip: Ask for a list of all of the briefing notes to a deputy minister each month and check out which titles seem to fit your beat. "One of the most fruitful categories is briefing notes to deputy ministers," he says.
The FOI forms ask for you to identify yourself in order to get stats. But he recommends to check off the last option: decline to categorize yourself as media or otherwise
There are two ways to file: paper and online. The electronic form takes only five minutes, Beeby says. This makes the paying of five dollars very quick and easy.
Tom Henheffer from CJFE asks: How do we counter the government's claims that journalists' requests are costing them millions of dollars?
Answer: "Yes, the system costs millions but the net benefits are hundreds of millions of dollars," Beeby responds.
"Don't ask for briefing notes," says Beeby. "Ask for briefing materials" such as house cards, etc.
Q: What's the most interesting record you received before you even realized that the record existed?
A: After the Cpl. Nathan Cirillo shooting, he asked to see the training documents. He received the training manual and on one form it detailed exactly what happened each day. He wrote a story about Cpl. Cirillo's last days without originally knowing those details were recorded.
"The Merx site can give you a lot of really great ideas" - check it out and write down the dates for future reference
Time left for a few more questions.
Q: Should we file anonymously? Like getting someone else to do it for you.
A: "You're a proud journalist," he says. "You know your rights." They know you are not going away and they will see your name on the story anyway, so no.
Beeby closes by saying, "I like to do this stuff. I think it's so important to get more journalists filing." He expresses how it is essential for journalists to "fight back".
Beeby encourages you to contact him for further information on dealing with roadblocks and encountering issues when filing requests:
Thanks for tuning in for this informative discussion with Dean Beeby. Happy filing!