Official Information Act request charges for media in spotlight
ANALYSIS: Journalists who make requests for official information from government agencies are used to lengthy delays and lots of blacked-out pages.
Hefty invoices, like the $651 estimate received by Fairfax business journalist Richard Meadows this week for an Official Information Act (OIA) request to the Reserve Bank, are much rarer.
Meadows was informed by the Reserve Bank that charging media for requests was now its "standard policy", rather than a one-off.
A spokesman for the organisation says it instituted an official OIA policy for the first time in November last year.
It had discussed whether requests from media outlets should be exempt from charges, but decided that "as a matter of policy it will be even-handed on charges", with no charge for "small, simple or infrequent requests".
Under the law, government departments and other agencies covered by the OIA are allowed to charge for official information requests.
Most have guidelines which make exceptions for the media, MPs, and the researchers who gather information for political parties - but this may be about to change.
The former Chief Ombudsman, Dame Beverley Wakem, said in a report on the OIA last year that the law does not support "an outright exemption based on the identity of a requester or their role" when considering whether to charge them a fee.
Wakem recommended that agencies review their policies to ensure certain requesters – like media – were not excluded from the rules, so the Reserve Bank could be the first of many to start charging journalists.
But why is this a problem, and why should be media be treated any differently from an ordinary member of the public?
Labour MP Jacinda Ardern says it would be "really worrying" if media were to be regularly charged for official information requests, given their role in letting the public know what politicians are doing and how it will affect them.
"We're reliant on their access to information as part of open and transparent government, and it would of course become a deterrent for a journalist to access that information if they are routinely being charged."
Joanna Norris, editor of The Press and chairwoman of the NZ Media Freedom Committee, says it's not about making special rules for media, but making it easier for everyone to make requests for official information.
"I don't necessarily believe that media should be treated any differently – this is information that is held on behalf of all New Zealanders and all New Zealanders should have access to that information."
What about wide-ranging requests that could cost agencies thousands of dollars, and take hours to put together?
Ardern says problems with requests like those should be dealt with by speaking to whoever wants the information and asking them to make changes, rather than imposing a hefty sum to access it.
Many organisations already do this, as the Reserve Bank did with Meadows, but there is a question of how useful a request can be if it is overly "refined".
Norris says the default position for government agencies should be "transparency and openness", rather than charging fees.
"It certainly is reasonable to recoup some costs, but the starting point should be, 'How can we release this information as effectively and efficiently as possible?' "
The Ministry of Justice, which sets guidelines for government organisations on how they should charge for OIA requests, says it will review the current rules later this year in light of Wakem's report.
"No decisions have been made on the particular items to be included in scope of the review but as the guidelines were last set in 2002, the Ministry and Forum considered it timely to review them," the ministry's acting civil and constitutional general manager Chris Hubscher said.
So what will happen if the review does lead to more agencies charging media?
Ardern says that would likely lead to fewer OIA requests from journalists, and present "a real challenge to open, accountable, transparent government".
"You cannot tell me that media would not be deterred from making requests if they were routinely charged ... and that's a worry."
Norris describes regular charging as a "dangerous step", saying it would put up a barrier to those who could not afford to pay, leading to less transparency.
"That's contrary to the very purposes of the act – the very reason the act was set up was to ensure that New Zealanders could participate in government and to promote accountability."
She says government agencies concerned about how releasing documents could make them look are themselves looking at things the wrong way.
"They need to stop looking at this as their information, it's not – it's the information held on behalf of all New Zealanders. It's not their information, it's ours."