The right to information
TheStar.com – opinion/publiceditor
Published On Sat Oct 22 2011. Public Editor
Right to Know Week was last month so I suppose I’m a little late in fulminating about the injustices in our right to public information.
But the fact that Canadians still require a special week to promote access to government information as a basic civil right is a statement in itself. While the need for this global campaign is readily apparent in countries where democracy is nonexistent, Canadian laws give us all the right to access public information.
Sadly, given the gap between the ideal and the reality of how the right to access to information plays out across our country, this is an issue for Canadians every week of the year.
The right to public information is obviously an important matter for journalists. The oft-cited cliché is that news is what some person, government or institution wants kept secret and that is often the case. Journalists, reporting in the public interest, seek to shine light on such “secrets” citizens are entitled to know.
But understand that access to public information is not a special right for journalists. Canada’s Access to Information Act gives every Canadian citizen the right to access government records. Such information is not supposed to be kept secret.
Too often, though, it is journalists who are singled out and thwarted in their efforts to get access to public information.
As this year’s annual Newspapers Canada audit of our country’s freedom of information system found, in Ontario particularly, requests made by media and other groups that seek to hold government accountable were more likely to be flagged as contentious and take much longer than requests made for private reasons.
The report concluded: “The system works better in theory than in practice.”
This comes as no surprise to those Star reporters who frequently submit access requests for public information. Far too often, their requests are met with long delays, bureaucratic intransigence, huge fee estimates and outright flouting of laws that say that elected politicians are not to become involved in thwarting information requests.
These roadblocks don’t keep the Star’s reporters from seeking information through FOI (Freedom of Information) requests.
Reporter Jesse McLean has filed more than 30 requests already this year, the majority still in process. Still, he has seen some success in obtaining public information that led to significant stories.
Earlier this month, after getting access to 45 Peel police occurrence reports from 2005 to 2010, he reported that Peel police officers have lost a small arsenal of weapons in recent years. More troubling, officers have lost their weapons in a variety of public places, including a Tim Hortons shop, a parking lot and a park.
McLean has also experienced the inconsistency of how access laws are applied. As he reported, the Star has made similar requests through access legislation to Toronto police, Ontario Provincial Police and Durham Regional Police Service.
Though Peel police released this information, York Regional Police have so far refused to release its actual occurrence reports on lost or stolen weapons, claiming the details on how the equipment went missing are officers’ private personal information.
Toronto police gave a fee estimate of more than $1,600 for a breakdown of police equipment missing since 2003. The OPP has yet to provide a fee estimate. Durham police have not responded at all. According to access laws, they should have responded by Oct. 12, even to ask for an extension.
“I’ve experienced good, helpful FOI coordinators, such as those at the City of Toronto and Peel police, who will release information that might ultimately be seen as embarrassing to the agency because legislation says they must,” McLean told me this week. “Unfortunately, I’ve had other coordinators who are much more combative, who treat public records as proprietary information.
“They work to prevent the information from being released rather than trying to figure out how to release as much as possible,” he said. “This isn’t just offensive. It’s undemocratic. This information belongs to the public and should be readily accessible.”
Perhaps journalists would get more action if we published regular accountings of our requests for public information and reported the status of those requests.
Public information does belong to the public — not bureaucrats, politicians or governments. I don’t understand why journalists and citizens together do not scream louder when access is thwarted, our rights denied.
As Suzanne Craig, Toronto’s former director of corporate access and privacy, and current integrity commissioner in Vaughan, told a newsroom FOI training workshop this week: “Access to information laws are there so that information is given out always, not sometimes.
“You need to push harder. The legislation is worth fighting for.”
She is right. And it is worth fighting for every week of the year.
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