Bogged down: access to information isn’t working

Grant BucklerCanada was a leader in implementing access to information legislation in the early 1980s, writes Grant Buckler. But that was then – this is now.

The Globe and Mail published an article this past week about Ottawa’s growing delays in responding to access to information requests. The government is taking longer and longer to provide information that the Access to Information Act requires it to produce, the story says.

When the Globe filed access to information requests aimed at finding reasons for the delays, the result was – more delays. Some think a key reason for the slow responses is a new requirement that the Privy Council review all information requests.

The Globe is hardly the first to raise the issue. Federal information commissioners have been critical of the government’s response time to access to information requests. Last year then information commissioner Robert Marleau blasted the government’s record (see Canadian Press and Toronto Star stories), and the Globe’s report predicts Suzanna Legault, the interim information commissioner, will make the point again in her report due next month. And several other observers have pointed to problems not only with government responses to access to information requests but with government openness in general.

As J-Source also reported recently, some federal departments have begun converting data into images before releasing it. The main function of doing this seems to be that it makes the data next to impossible to search.

Canada was a leader in implementing access to information legislation in the early 1980s. But that was then – this is now. Other countries have come from behind with stronger access to information (or freedom of information, as many jurisdictions call it) legislation while ours has remained untouched. In a report called Fallen Behind: Canada’s Access to Information Act in the World Context, Stanley Tromp, freedom of information caucus co-ordinator for the Canadian Association of Journalists, argues that the existing Canadian law fails to meet international standards.

Many countries have been moving to extend access to information requirements to quasi-governmental organizations – such as Crown corporations in the Canadian context. Canada has been slow to do this. And the Canadian information commissioner has limited power to force disclosure of information – something Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to change during the 2006 election campaign, but hasn’t. And then there’s the exclusion of Cabinet documents, sometimes referred to as the Mack Truck clause.

Slow response to access to information requests is just part of what many people argue is an increased climate of secrecy in Ottawa. Tromp cites a long list of examples in favour of this view in another report called Governmental Secrecy in Canada: A Postscript. Gil Shochat tackles it in his article The Dark Country in the January 2010 issue of The Walrus.

So what does this have to do with freedom of expression? Some might argue it’s an entirely separate issue. For the average individual freedom of expression primarily means the right to say or write what you believe without censorship or fear of reprisal. It certainly means that for the media too. But as long as we expect journalism to be supported by facts, making information hard to get makes it harder for reporters to do their jobs. In a time when media resources are shrinking, that will have a significant impact on what the public knows.

And this is supposedly public information about the workings of a government that we expect to be accountable to the public (and that claims to want to be accountable). The limbo of unanswered requests for information is hardly the same as the daily risk of being killed for what you write – but it is a threat to journalism and it’s hardly good for democracy.

Grant Buckler has been a freelance journalist for more than 25 years, specializing in covering information technology and telecommunications and more recently alternative energy and clean technology. He has been a volunteer with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) for several years.