With the public consultation period on modernizing Canada’s long-criticized Access to Information Act now ended, press freedom watchdogs are urging the government to address the act’s shortcomings.
On the 30th anniversary of the Access to Information Act last July, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault announced that her office would conduct a major review of the act.
“Our investigations have demonstrated a number of deficiencies in the law which hampers the development of a truly open government,” Legault said at the time.
Legault will submit her recommendations to Parliament in September.
Meanwhile, Ottawa-based Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom (CCWPF) is calling on the government to “dismantle its culture of secrecy” surrounding access to information.
As part of the public consultations on reforming the act, CCWPF submitted a report citing growing wait times, drastically increased exemptions, information redaction, and decreased creation of records as examples of barriers the government has put in place to prohibit journalists and the public from accessing timely information.
It is time to bring the Access to Information Act into the 21st century and to restore Canada’s former leadership in the field.
— Hugh Winsor, Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom
“Access to information must not be seen as a privilege, but rather as a fundamental right of citizens,” says Hugh Winsor, a member of the CCWPF’s board of directors and co-author of the report.
Another press freedom watchdog, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), which also submitted a report recommending changes to the act, says that without urgent reforms, the access to information system “could soon become dysfunctional.”
“There are a couple of major barriers, probably the biggest is the wait times,” says CJFE manager Julie Payne.
“That’s what we hear from all the journalists we talk to. There is supposed to be a limit of 30 days, and what we’re seeing is that instead of 30 days things are taking 90 days, 200 days. We’ve seen cases where [requests] have taken years to get back.”
Payne adds that even when access requests are filled, they come with an increase in redaction—the editing or deleting of sensitive portions of released documents. The CCWPF notes that in 2010 only 15 percent of requesters received all the documentation they sought, compared to 41 percent in 2000.
When it was first created in 1982, Canada’s Access to Information system was considered among the vanguard of nations developing laws around how to make information available. But largely due to neglect the system has fallen behind, and fails to reflect the needs of the fast-paced digital age.
“It is time to bring the Access to Information Act into the 21st century and to restore Canada’s former leadership in the field,” says Winsor.
According to a 2012 study by the Centre for Law and Democracy, Canada’s access legislation has fallen to 55th place of 92 countries worldwide. A separate 2011 study ranked the country’s freedom of information laws “dead last” compared to Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.
The government can deny access to information requests legitimately if these requests jeopardize the country’s security or an individual’s right to privacy.
However, the tripling of such exemptions since 2002-2003 reflects a faulty system that is being increasingly abused, Payne alleges.
“They have created so many classifications of exemptions—they can [refuse to] provide information because there are so many loopholes within the act as it stands right now,” she says.
“They’ve been just exempting whole swathes of information—the system is just in a terrible state of crisis.”
According to CCWPF, other ways the government has avoided information requests is by failing to create records in the first place, such as not taking minutes of meetings.
During the 2006 election, the Conservatives campaigned on a promise to reform the act and “had some really great recommendations” to improve accountability and transparency in government, says Payne.
“Really they need to go back to their own work and put those recommendations into action,” she says.
“I think that they just need to know that Canadians care about this—that this isn’t an issue that’s only cared about by a few journalists or a few policy workers.”
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