Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Information 'freedom' comes at a price

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Want to check the maintenance records of Winnipeg School Division playgrounds for the last three years? That will be $2,714.25, please.

That’s how the division responded to a recent request from three Red River College journalism students.

For the fourth annual Open Secrets, a freedom-of-information project sponsored by the Winnipeg Free Press, the students followed the process available to anyone under Manitoba’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

One group requested copies of monthly playground inspection reports and incident reports from 2009 to 2011.

Shocked by the bill, the students declined to pay it, and therefore the division did not have to provide the information.

Instead, the students requested details about a machine designed to test playground equipment, only to learn that it is broken and in storage. For further details on that, the school division requested $593.

Rather than paying, the students pursued traditional, no-cost interviews and still uncovered a story.

It could have been worse. During last year's Open Secrets project, students who asked how many children have been injured on City of Winnipeg playgrounds received a bill for ten times as much – more than $26,000.

This year, Free Press city hall reporter Jen Skerritt and Wendy Sawatzky, the paper’s associate editor for digital news, briefed the students on the legislation, then guided them in filing their requests and following up. Skerritt helped refine their stories, while Sawatzky helped them create maps, charts and sidebars for informative and appealing presentations.

When government departments did not provide the requested information, students negotiated with the departments’ freedom-of-information co-ordinators.

Most were helpful, complying with the legal requirement to "make every reasonable effort to assist an applicant and to respond without delay, openly, accurately and completely."

Duncan McMonagle teaches journalism in the Creative Communications program at Red River College.

dmcmonagle@rrc.ca

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