8 lessons on the state of our right to know in Canada

Wednesday, May 13, 2015
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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

On Friday, May 8th, CJFE and the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University co-hosted “Flying Blind: The Right to Know, Government Obstruction, and Fixing Access in Canada.” The full-day conference gathered experts from journalism, law, government, and academia to share their knowledge and insights about the problems plaguing our access to information system. Their informative and lively discussions highlighted the ways our right to know is threatened, how our freedom of information system is failing us, and what the government and the public can do to fix it. To catch the full conversations, check out the live blogs for each panel:

  • Panel 1: Failing to Create Information (Maggie Xenopoulos, Munir Sheikh, Robert Cribb)
  • Panel 2: Difficulty Accessing Information (Dean Beeby, Jennifer Ditchburn, Laura Tribe)
  • Panel 3: Limiting the Dissemination of Information (Ivan Semeniuk, Jesse Brown, Peter Jacobsen)
  • Panel 4: We Know the Problems. Now What to Do about Them? (James L. Turk, Suzanne Legault, Tom Henheffer)

TOP TAKEAWAYS AND TALKING POINTS

  • Libel chill and the threat of lawsuits are stopping journalists from publishing important stories. Freelancers in particular have little to no protections or assistance, and they carry the full liability burden if they use anonymous sources.
  • Canada’s outdated ATI laws put us in the bottom of the pack. Out of 102 countries in the Right to Information rating (Centre for Law and Democracy), Canada ranks 59th in freedom of information legislation. Our rating gets worse every year, and we’re well behind countries that are far from safe for reporters, such as Mexico.
  • Bad information makes for bad policies. The long-form census is the “gold standard for measuring reality,” and its biggest impact is in its use as an anchor to develop policy. With a voluntary census, the results are largely meaningless, and policy based on bad information can be more dangerous than policy based on no information at all.
  • Canada is losing its reputation for quality scientific research. Public funding of scientific research is below the G8 average. Existing funding is going towards targeted research: the goals are “company-specific problems,” corporate partnerships, and immediate economic benefits. “Harper’s not funding science, he’s subsidizing business,” says Professor Maggie Xenopoulos.
  • Sometimes, it’s not just that the information is hard to access; it’s that they’re not keeping it at all. ATI requests are often answered with “no responsive records,” and the conversations behind decisions and actions will often take place outside of official communication streams, keeping them out of reach from the requests. Results from public polls have been blacked out entirely.
  • There is an extreme imbalance of power in communication flows between government and media. The government is cutting back on their official interactions with journalists while increasing their own media team. The end result is an imbalance of power through the control of all communications and flow of information. Reporters are given restrictive orders, such as not having access to Prime Minister Harper’s itinerary and not being allowed to ask him questions during photo opportunities, while the government media gets extraordinary access.
  • Not every information request is political—but they’re all being treated like they are. Every information request is seen as political and gets redirected to the government’s media responders. Even basic requests for information, such as services provided in national parks in winter, are answered with cautiously worded talking points with little to no information, and public servants fear losing their jobs if they answer questions directly.
  • Restricted information and broad exemptions paralyze the system. Exemptions to the ATI law, such as anything deemed “advice to the Prime Minister,” result in a full stop to the flow of information. The Access to Information Act doesn’t cover all government branches, and even with additional order-making powers, the Information Commissioner wouldn’t be able to order the disclosure of anything that is protected by the exemptions.
  • Publication bans are excessively used for secrecy, but are often ineffective. Publication bans are overly used, including in pre-trials, and there’s no way to check which bans are in place either currently or historically. Despite the bans, information and opinions about cases are often widely shared on social media before and during trials, making it difficult for jurors to remain unbiased.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

  • Talk about access to information on social media: publicizing these issues and educating your social network will make a big different in the fight for freedom of information.
  • Communicate with your MPs: tell them why this is important to you
      —access to information means different things to different people.
  • Publish and be transparent: to prevent libel chill, Jesse Brown reminds journalists that “the best defence is a good offence.” Publish the contentious stories and show the level of communication in accessing information: the questions asked and the answers provided.
  • Commit concrete resources: organizations need to go beyond supporting the call for freedom of information in name only, and form coalitions to provide the necessary supports.
  • Be active in the solution: Information Commissioner calls for political activism to bring change to the ATI system, and CJFE Executive Director Tom Henheffer calls on journalists to step away from objectivity and accept the role of activist.

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