When it’s time sensitive, the team drop off requests in person, or couriers them so they have a proven date of receipt. Instead of having agency claim they received the document a whole month after it was mailed.
Talk to FOIP co-ordinators. Many are helpful and believe in spirit of the Act. If you cover a beat, get familiar with who are the co-ordinators, which ones are speedy, etc.
Rusnell: It helps if you have a track record of producing quality journalism. In my stand-ups on air, I hold the document. “In this document…” It shows I have a track record of using FOIP in public interest, which stands up when it comes to a fee waiver/appeal.
Rusnell: When you’re getting started, try a few as a tests. Don’t get discouraged. This is an easy skill but you need to practise it. It’s an immense public-interest tool.
Questions. First: Take me through appeal process. What happens once you ask?
Russell explains in Alberta, a request for review form asks for your info, the number, and why you want to review (huge fee, they’re late in response, they redacted beyond the act). We do that and attach a letter saying here are our arguments, we would like you to review it. Sometimes in AB this takes two years.
The co-ordinator gives records to information commissioner, who reviews the redacted and unredacted information. Then they divulge what they feel is acceptable under act.
If you disagree with their decision, it goes to a board of inquiry, which is similar to a legal process.
Rusnell: You need to understand which documents that exist. It helps to find people who know what documents exist; what they’re called.
Once at the Journal, we looked into restaurant inspections. Dug through archives for name of inspectors. Convinced one to take us to a restaurant to do an inspection. He showed us what’s in the forms, what isn’t and what’s actually dangerous. We knew which forms to ask for — and to ask for photos inspectors took.
We saw in one document that the restaurant was accused of thawing their meat outside in the back alley, and that neighbouring people had photos of cats and birds touching the meat. We called people in neighbouring businesses; I called an insurance company worker who said ‘I took those photos!” And we had those in our report.
Question period is now a back-and-forth about the issues of govts divulging the requests publicly without a delay. It’s more than about scoops. One audience member: If my FOI requests were published before I published, I would get sued. It would thwart the story.
They also talk about the importance of co-ordinators not naming the requestor. They are supposed to be confidential but aren’t always. Rusnell says a competitor once asked for all requests submitted by him — and they got a package back.
The session is ending, but both welcome questions after:
Sean Holman takes podium. Asks people to use the hashtag #cdnfoi because it's connecting disparate people dealing with freedom-of-info issues and govt secrecy.