New changes to FIPPA change nothing

Journalists, students critique the availability of public information even after amendments

Ayame Ulrich

As of Jan. 1, 2011, new amendments to Manitoba’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) came into effect, leaving those who utilize the legislation wanting more.

The changes include the disclosure of public opinion polls, new criteria for requests of information a public body can choose to ignore and other issues regarding access of information and privacy concerns.

Some who use FIPPA regularly as a means to find information are not impressed by the results.

“In practical terms, it’s a fairly sparse outcome of a very long process,” said Mary Agnes Welch, public policy reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

The discussion of changes and the establishment of outlines for the new amendments date back to 2008.

One such change, which will see information received from any First Nation protected in the same way as information from other governments, actually restricts the amount of information available to the public, according to Welch.

“That kind of closes the door to a batch of information that we might have been able to access before this,” she said.

Along with the amendments came the creation of a new appointed position called the Information and Privacy Adjudicator.

Ron Perozzo is the province’s first adjudicator and is charged with holding the government and other bodies like municipalities and school boards to the recommendations of the ombudsman.

“The adjudicator is an additional role. It is the final level of review ... for those very few cases in which an agreement cannot be made,” said Kim Riddell, compliance investigator with the Manitoba Ombudsman’s Office. “Up until now the ombudsman has been able to resolve about 95 per cent of issues.”

She also noted that with the role of the adjudicator, issues of privacy that would have been dismissed after a review by the ombudsman now have an additional level of proceedings if requested.

In practical terms, it’s a fairly sparse outcome of a very long process.

Mary Agnes Welch, public policy reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and president of the Canadian Association of Journal

Welch is not positive that the role of the adjudicator will be useful.

“It’s sort of another layer on a system that is so cumbersome,” she explained.

Public bodies fulfilling FIPPA requests have 30 days to acknowledge that they have received a request for information. After the initial recognition, the responder may ask for more time to retrieve the information.

According to Riddell, nothing regarding processing speed will change.

Welch, along with journalism instructor Duncan McMonagle, guided students of Red River College’s creative communications program through the legislation for an assignment this past September.

After learning the process, students teamed up and made requests for information on a topic of their own choosing.

Keith McCullough, a journalism major in the program, and his partner Jess Cable, didn’t have much trouble with their request regarding complaints made against security staff in Winnipeg night clubs in the past 10 years.

“We had a really smooth process,” said McCullough. “Our request was for all the formal complaints since 2000, but had to cut it to since 2004 because they had no previous computerized data.”

But not everyone’s experience went as smoothly as McCullough’s.

“There seems to be a lot of problems and loopholes with it (making and receiving requests for information),” he said. “People got information with parts blacked out, or had to wait a really long time; one guy never got anything back at all.”

Published in Volume 65, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 13, 2011)

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