According to a new report, the Conservative government has not created the “most transparent government in Canadian history.” Treasury Board president Tony Clement’s words, spoken in response to criticisms of the access to information system, ring hollow when looking at the most recent world press freedom rankings released by Reporters Without Borders. Canada fell 10 spots to barely hang on to 20th place. The cause: greater obstruction of journalists in the field and a growing threat to the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.
Unfortunately for Canada, the report states this year’s rankings are a better indicator of “governments’ attitudes and intentions towards the press” as there are fewer cases of political protest and instability worldwide, which contributed to a major crackdown on journalists in 2011.
The index measures the overall freedom of information allowed in the interaction between media and the government and takes into account visible problems such as violence against journalists, but also looks at less overt problems such as legislation impeding government information from getting to citizens—something the Supreme Court has designated a derivative right important to free expression and the functioning of democracy.
While Reporters Without Borders lists the introduction of Bill C-30, which threatens personal privacy on the Internet, as a key problem, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression say it’s the very legislation allowing access to government information that is creating the largest barrier to information.
“It’s archaic,” says Bob Carty in reference to the Access to Information legislation. Carty, a board member of CJFE, is concerned that the pervasive “culture of secrecy” in government is creating barriers for journalists and citizens.
“Information is seen as a problem,” he adds. “You don’t want citizens and the opposition parties and civil society and NGOs to have information.”
CJFE has put out its own report for World Press Freedom Day (May 3), specifically on the access barriers journalists face when attempting to get government information.
The 30-year-old access legislation created by the Trudeau government was once considered an international standard for accessing government information. But consistent changes over the years have resulted in increased wait times for documents, an increased number of exemptions due to “international affairs or defense” and in some cases, a complete failure to provide any information at all.
Twelve years ago, 40 percent of access to information requests were fully answered. In 2011, just 21 percent of requests received a full response. In the United Kingdom, by comparison, 60 percent of requests are answered.
Carty points to information on adverse drug reactions. That information, which is collected by the federal government, is publicly accessible and released regularly by the US government, but the Canadian equivalent had to be fought for and took years for it to be released.
“There are many things that should be public as a matter of course,” Carty says. “They shouldn’t have to be requested.”
This “culture of secrecy” as Carty describes it, has become worse under the Conservatives, but David McKie, a CBC journalist who uses ATI requests as a regular source for stories, points out the problem has always been there.
“It’s just not in any government’s interest to release this information,” McKie says.
It’s why he doesn’t hold out much hope for the current review of the Access to Information legislation by Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault.
“Certainly you could spend the next year reading all the nicely worded reports about the need to reform the act, but the reality is the political will is just not there on the part of any government,” McKie says.
But it’s possible the political will may be there in the future. Citizen reaction to increasingly regulated information has been growing. Last July 2000 scientists showed up on Parliament Hill to protest growing government restraints on their ability to speak publicly.
“I’ve covered science stories for years and I’ve never seen scientists protest like that,” Carty says.
Similarly, the revelation of former International Development minister Bev Oda’s spending habits, which came through an access to information request, helped to contribute to her eventual resignation.
McKie says it’s a sign journalists need to keep using the tools available, and to get creative.
“It’s hard to get information from this government on the best of days,” McKie says. “And so using access to information becomes a way to do that as efficiently as one can.”
It’s part of the push and pull of information coming out of government. Currently, the Conservatives are working on a method of pushing more information out through a new Open Portal system, which would regularly release government documents. And though the CJFE is advocating that the default position of departments should be to release information, open data doesn’t change the basic problem of a broken access system.
“They’re using the open portal as a smoke screen,” Carty says. The CJFE recommendations state the need of journalists to have information relating to the creation of policy and other politically sensitive topics such as spending. “For that kind of information the access system is vital,” says the report. “If ATI is dysfunctional, no amount of ‘pushed’ data will set things straight.”
“If government can only function if it’s secret, then it’s not democratic,” Carty says.
Legault’s recommended changes to the Act are slated to be released in the fall.