OTTAWA, Oct. 1 /CNW/ – A new report co-sponsored by the Canadian Association of Journalists says Canada’s access to information laws lag behind those of countries such as India, Mexico and Pakistan, meaning the public’s right to know is slowly eroding.
On International Right to Know Day, the CAJ calls upon the leaders of the country’s political parties to detail how they would improve the Access to Information Act to ensure greater openness and accountability to citizens.
“Canada used to be a global model of openness, and now we’re backsliding into the dark ages of government secrecy, obfuscation and denial,” said CAJ President Mary Agnes Welch. “It’s national Right to Know Day, but the public’s right to know is seriously at risk.”
The 392-page document, “Fallen Behind: Canada’s Access to Information Act in the World Context,” found that, on 12 key points, Canada’s act fails to meet the international standards of freedom-of-information (FOI) law endorsed by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression.
It found that Canadian reporters wait many months or even years for replies to their ATIA requests, whereas the average national FOI legal standard for replies is 14 days. Some nations also have strong penalties for delays, which are lacking in Canada. And Canada’s federal information commissioner lacks the essential power to order the release of information —
unlike his counterparts in five provinces. That key power, which was promised by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is just one among a list of promised reforms to the country’s access to information regime that were not fulfilled.
There are also more than 100 quasi-governmental agencies — including bodies dealing with blood services and nuclear waste — that are not obliged to follow the Canadian law, unlike similar bodies in most other nations.
Strong access to information legislation guarantees the public’s ability to scrutinize the activities of government. Since the act came into force in 1983, Canadian journalists have used it to produce hundreds of articles on risks to health and safety, the environment, law and order, and the proper use of taxpayers’ funds — articles that would not have been possible without ATIA requests.
Last month, through ATIA, the Globe and Mail revealed that in 2006, the Canadian government strongly opposed tougher U.S. rules to prevent listeria. In May, the Ottawa Citizen found about 1 in 20 gas pumps in Canada was pumping
less gas than indicated on the readout, according to Measurement Canada inspection data.
The new report was prepared by Stanley Tromp, a Vancouver-based freelance reporter and co-ordinator of the CAJ’s freedom of information caucus. It was sponsored by the CAJ, the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association,
the Canadian Newspaper Association, the Canadian Community Newspapers Association, and members of two Vancouver law firms. The full report can be found at: http://www3.telus.net/index100/foi.
The CAJ is Canada’s largest professional organization for journalists with more than 1,500 members across to country. The CAJ’s primary role is to provide public-interest advocacy and high quality professional development for its members.
( BACKGROUND – FYI )
Canada’s rusty freedom-of-information law fails to meet global standards: report
Below are some findings from the report Fallen Behind: Canada’s Access to
Information Act in the World Context. It is available at www3.telus.net/index100/foi, along with a chart contrasting each part of the ATI Act with the freedom of information (FOI) laws of 75 nations and the Canadian provinces. The site also has an index to global FOI rulings, to allow applicants to find precedents for their FOI appeals.
On 12 key points, Canada’s ATI Act does not meet the international standards of FOI law which were set out in the 1999 document The Public’s Right to Know: Principles of Freedom of Information Legislation, by Toby Mendel of the London based human rights organization Article 19. These principles were endorsed by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression.
Canada’s ATI Act also fails to conform to many central FOI recommendations from at least ten other global political organizations, such as Commonwealth Secretariat, the Council of Europe, the African Union, the World Bank, and United Nations Development Agency (UNDP).
The Conservative Party of Canada’s 2006 election platform statement Stand Up for Canada promised to grant the Information Commissioner the power to order the release of information, a pledge that was not fulfilled.
Yet this order-making power is held by the information commissioners of five Canadian provinces and 16 other jurisdictions including Mexico, India, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom (our parliamentary model).
Amongst the world’s FOI laws, the average request response time is two weeks. At least 60 other FOI nations in the world prescribe shorter timelines than in Canada, and some have strong penalties for delays. Yet under the Canadian ATI Act, public bodies must respond to requests within 30 days, and may extend this for another 30.
Delays in responding to ATI Act requests have truly reached a true crisis level. Some departments are so backlogged that they automatically add extensions of more than 100 days to most, if not all, requests. Others agencies coolly grant themselves a 240 day extension, for in the ATI Act the limit may be stretched for an unspecified “reasonable period of time.” In a recent report, the Information Commissioner validated a 2005 complaint by the Canadian Newspaper Association that agencies red-flag and further delay ATI Act requests by the media.
The Conservatives made an (unfulfilled) pledge to “expand the coverage of the Act to all Crown corporations, Officers of Parliament, foundations and organizations that spend taxpayers’ money or perform public functions.” This promise was only partially fulfilled by the new inclusion of several entities in the Accountability Act.
But more than 100 quasi-governmental entities are still not covered by the ATI Act. The exclusion of such entities such as the Canadian Blood Services and the nuclear Waste Management Organization blocks transparency could impact public heath and safety.
On this topic Canada has fallen farthest behind the world FOI community. The FOI laws of 29 nations cover legal entities performing “public functions” and/or “vested with public powers,” and the statutes of the United Kingdom, India, and New Zealand also provide good models.
The Conservatives made an (unfulfilled) pledge to “provide a general public interest override for all exemptions.” Today the FOI laws of 38 other nations – and all but one of the Canadian provinces and territories – contain much broader public interest overrides than are found in the Canadian ATI Act.
The Conservatives made an (unfulfilled) pledge to subject all ATI Act exemptions to a “harms test,” where the government must prove that an injury would result from releasing exempted records, such as those regarding law enforcement or trade secrets. Seven ATI Act exemptions still lack harms tests, a situation which falls seriously short of accepted world standards.
Only in Canada and South Africa are the records of cabinet discussions completely excluded from the scope of the ATI Act law, and Canada’s Information Commissioner does not even have the legal right to review such records.
Yet ten Commonwealth nations, including the United Kingdom, have an exemption instead of an exclusion for these records, meaning they can be reviewed by an appellate body and released. More than 50 other national FOI statutes have no specific exemption for cabinet records at all. As well, such records can be withheld for 20 years in the ATI Act, but for only 10 years in Nova Scotia’s FOI law.
The Conservatives made an (unfulfilled) pledge to “oblige public officials to create the records necessary to document their actions and decisions.” It is well known that the pernicious trend towards “oral government” has spread in Canada: officials often fail to commit their thoughts to paper and convey them verbally instead, mainly in an effort to block the information coming out under FOI. Several other national FOI laws prescribe record creation, and the duty to file records in a way that facilitates access.
Today there are more than 50 other provisions in other laws that override the ATI Act. The Conservatives made an (unfulfilled) pledge to fix this problem, and so make the ATI Act supreme on disclosure questions. Several Commonwealth nations – including India, Pakistan and South Africa – establish that their FOI law will override secrecy provisions in other laws.
For further information:
Mary Agnes Welch, CAJ president, (204) 943-6575, Cell (204) 470-8862;
John Dickins, CAJ executive director, (613) 526-8061;
Stanley Tromp, Vancouver, (604) 733-7595, firstname.lastname@example.org