NZ drops in Press Freedom table – Government OIA shenanigans blamed

Government secrecy is being blamed for New Zealand dropping out of a top 10 ranking of countries that respect media freedom.

Advocacy group Reporters Without Borders has issued its latest report, which places New Zealand at number 13 in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. It was number five in 2016.

The report said journalists were struggling with the Official Information Act, which gives government agencies long periods of time to respond to requests. Sometimes journalists were asked to pay for information.

There is no doubt some departments like to dick around with OIA requests to protect internal problems and the minister, but by the time you have to pay it generally involves a huge burden on the department’s staff and therefore our taxpayer dollars.  

Catherine Strong, from Massey University’s School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, said the ranking drop was alarming.

She said it was indicative of a growing trend for government agencies to try to hide information from the public.

“Our lower standing is due to the growing list of government agencies trying to hide information by thwarting the Official Information Act, and these agencies are ruining our reputation,” Strong said.

She said there were more complaints to the Ombudsman each year from journalists who could not get information from government bodies. “My field is local government and secrecy is really rampant.”

The Ombudsman’s Office has started releasing detailed lists of every complaint in an effort to encourage departments to improve their public accountability process.

Strong said pressure should be put on government not to be so secretive and not to run public bodies as if they were private companies. “They need to realise that democracy is imporant.”

Joanna Norris, Fairfax’s South Island editor in chief and chair of New Zealand’s Media Freedom Committee, said there were several challenges that threatened media freedom.

“Among the most serious of these is the consistent and cynical misuse of official information laws which are designed to assist the release of information, but are often used to withhold it,” she said.

The Official Information Act is generally abused by journalists and political operators.  I personally might only do a couple a month, if any.  But I know that others are absolutely bombarding government departments with requests.  They are part of the problem as it shuts down the efficiency and loses goodwill from those who are needed to do the job.

There is also no doubt that ministers get involved to prevent certain information getting out.  There was one recently where I could not get to see something because it was claimed that the information written using the government email address and resources was in a personal capacity.

By definition, nothing you do on government time and using government provided systems is personal and if you use it as such, it is still accessible under the OIA.   But they count on you not wanting to climb into the Ombudsman to force the issue.

The fact that the Ombudsman is overworked is similar to companies not paying your invoice unless you’ve called at least three times to remind them to pay you.   Or insurance companies cynically denying expensive claims knowing a certain percentage will go away and not follow it up.


– Stuff

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