Access to information among concerns in CJFE Review of Free Expression in Canada

By Grant Buckler

By Grant Buckler

In the past year Canadians have lost even more of their ability to know what their government is doing and why,  the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) said in its 2014 Review of Free Expression in Canada. The Review—the fifth one CJFE has published annually to coincide with World Press Freedom Day on May 3—also raises concerns about muzzling of government scientists, harassment of journalists in Quebec, restrictions on union advocacy in Alberta and other freedom of expression issues.

From the use of new technologies for surveillance of citizens to the lack of protection of whistleblowers who call out unethical and potentially harmful activity and the difficulties faced by those working through access-to-information red tape, CJFE said free expression in Canada is deteriorating.

In a recent poll, CJFE found that 54 per cent of Canadians disagreed or somewhat disagreed when asked whether they had more access to government information now than in the past, conflicting with the current federal government’s assertions that it is the most transparent to date.

Those assertions are based on carefully selected statistics, argued CJFE board member and radio producer Bob Carty in an article in the Review. Carty also suggested that the federal government is now avoiding disclosures under access-to-information law by simply not keeping records on sensitive issues. Some of this is due to increased use of instant messaging, he noted, but in one case Correctional Services of Canada destroyed records that were just two years old.

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“Since the first Review launched five years ago, troubling issues continue to affect our right to free expression in this country,” said CJFE President Arnold Amber. “The federal access to information system is still in crisis; would-be whistleblowers still lack protections; and debates continue to grow over digital rights, internet access and media business models. Earlier worries about government and corporate use of new technologies for surveillance of citizens have escalated to become a chorus of alarm bells.”

The Review includes a signature report card that grades Canadian institutions and their handling of free expression issues affecting the country. This year, the federal access-to-information system receives a failing grade for an increase in complaints about delays and missing records, while Canadian whistleblowers Edgar Schmidt and Sylvie Therrien are granted top grades for their personal and professional sacrifices.  

The report card gave the proposed Ontario legislation against strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP suits) a B grade. Bill 83, which would make it more difficult to bring frivolous lawsuits against people speaking out on a matter of public interest, has yet to pass. It gives the RCMP an incomplete, saying its access-to-information office is so understaffed that it cannot even acknowledge the receipt of requests, let alone respond to them, in the 30 days required by law.

The federal government gets an F for transparency in trans-Pacific partnership negotiations. One of the most concerning provisions in this agreement would require Internet service providers to act as copyright monitors, monitoring and filtering user content and Internet access. Canada would have to change its legal framework to align with that of the U.S., which could require amending regulations for patents, copyright and fair use, with severe implications for the freedom to publish and access information.

The Communications Security Establishment of Canada (CSEC) and the independent commissioner whose job it is to hold CSEC accountable get an F because of revelations about spying on Canadians and other questionable activities. The commissioner has been unable to investigate some CSEC activities because of incomplete records, the Review noted.

The Review noted that federal scientists continue to be prevented from speaking freely to the media and the public, noting a 2013 report by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada that said 90 per cent of federal government scientists did not feel they could speak freely about their work, 86 per cent felt they could not report actions that might harm the public without risk of censorship or reprimand and 24 per cent had been asked to alter or exclude information in government documents for non-scientific reasons.

On a related note, the Review bemoaned Canada’s continued failure to provide adequate protection for whistleblowers.

Pierre Craig, president of the Quebec Professional Federation of Journalists and host of the CBC/Radio Canada television program La Facture, wrote in the review about reporters in Quebec being prevented from recording or photographing public council meetings and told to file access-to-information requests to get basic statistics. He noted that a Newspapers Canada investigation in 2011 and 2013 ranked the province last in access to information.

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