Plague of government secrecy throttles Canadians’ freedom
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Canada now ranks No. 55 among 93 nations when it comes to the law that allows journalists and others to get access to federal government documents.
May 03 2013. By: Arnold Amber
We have all read, heard or seen them: stories that make our heads snap back about a problem in our food chain, a financial blooper by a government department, or a safety regulation that isn’t being enforced. It is our democratic and free expression right to receive such information. Unfortunately, on this, the annual celebration of World Press Freedom Day, Canadians may be dismayed to learn that we need an extensive overhaul to protect free expression across this country.
For starters, Canada now ranks No. 55 among 93 nations when it comes to the law that allows journalists and others to get access to federal government documents. The ranking by the Centre for Law and Democracy puts us just ahead of Angola and Thailand, but one place behind Slovakia. This is a huge drop from 31 years ago when Canada’s initial legislation on access to information (ATI) was hailed as world-leading.
What has happened since then? For one thing, despite many demands over the years for changes to make our law more effective, successive Liberal and Conservative governments did nothing. Then along came the Harper Tories who, amid the Liberals’ explosive sponsorship scandal, promoted open government in the 2006 election campaign. But once elected, Stephen Harper went to the other extreme, imposing an iron curtain on nearly everything about his government. So much for transparency and the health of Canada’s democracy.
Meanwhile, in many other countries new ATI laws were passed that gave individuals the right to express their views and also enshrined the right guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for people to receive information about important things going on in their government and society.
Present Canadian law and processes concerning Access to Information are particularly bad and getting worse in how long it takes for government departments to reply. While 36.8 per cent of requests in 1999 were answered beyond the 30 days the law allows, by 2011-12 that rose to 44.7 per cent. According to a 2011 survey by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, the average time for an answer was 395 days; on one request, the Department of Defence took an extension of 1,100 days.
The CJFE’s annual Review of Free Expression in Canada, published today, gave a grade of D-minus to the federal Access to Information system.
The lack of proper access to information means that when investigative journalists get no response, severely redacted information, or have to wait through lengthy delays, they often are forced to abandon stories the public should have known about. For inquisitive Canadians it makes it difficult to be well-informed about what the government is doing and to hold it accountable. Or, as CJFE puts it: “What you don’t know can hurt you.”
Another thing that can hurt Canadians is this country’s inability to protect whistleblowers — those brave people who step forward in the public interest to expose misdeeds, corruption or other wrongdoing in their workplaces.
The federal and six provincial governments have laws and regulations about protecting whistleblowers among their employees, but they are flawed in many ways. In the private sector things are even worse. There is no direct legislation at any level that protects the jobs of whistleblowers and they are almost always terminated by their employers. Many never work again in their industry of choice.
Whistleblowers are fundamental to pointing out major problems that could affect all of us. There are not enough journalists, inspectors, prosecutors or auditors to know what’s going on in the thousands of government departments and private sector companies. Other western countries have much better protection laws than Canada.
Amid all these issues, the federal government continues to stop the free flow of information to the public. In successive moves it has stymied federal government scientists, other bureaucrats, even their own backbenchers in Parliament and, most recently, senior RCMP officers from speaking to members of Parliament without permission from Public Safety Minister Vic Toews. In this era of news and views everywhere, the government tries to control its message, undermining democracy along the way.
On World Press Freedom Day, someone in the cabinet should read Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where our freedom to “receive and impart information” is guaranteed.
Arnold Amber is president of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.
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