CJFE Concerned by Political Interference in Access to Information Case

Monday, February 8, 2010
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) is concerned by reports of political interference involving an Access to Information request made by the Canadian Press. The interference from the Public Works department resulted in delays and the delivery of a heavily censored version of a report on Public Works' real-estate portfolio. Canadian Press has submitted a complaint about this issue to the Information Commissioner of Canada which was fast-tracked last week when it was decided that the file raises significant accountability issues. "This is inexcusable political interference in the right of Canadians to know what their own government is doing," says CJFE Board member and journalist Kelly Toughill. "The case exposes how poorly our freedom of information laws are functioning." Particularly concerning is that Access to Information officials had determined that there was no legal basis to withhold the report. However bureaucrats within the Public Works department intervened to make sure that the full report was not delivered to the Canadian Press. This redacted version was sent 82 days late. In addition to censoring of material, the problem of excessive delays in responding to and concluding requests is one shared by many other government departments. In fact, Information Commissioner of Canada Robert Marleau, in summarizing his office's 2007-08 Report Card said "I do believe that its results provide a grim picture of the federal government's access to information regime." In this report, the Public Works and Government Services Canada department joined Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Health Canada and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the very bottom of the list, with below-average ranking of two stars out of a possible five. One reason for Public Works' abysmal ranking was their average of 126 days taken to complete new requests. The Access to Information Act outlines a statutory 30-day limit - a limit which in practice is more the exception than the rule. In 2005, the Canadian Newspaper Association requested an investigation into how federal public service processes media requests for information. The investigation concluded that there was "merit to the second part of the CNA's complaint about unfair and unjustifiable delays." However, the report went on to say that the media was not being singled out, but was part of a wider problem affecting other groups as well. CJFE calls upon the government of Canada to make it a priority across all departments to embrace a true culture of transparency and openness. We note that Justice Canada achieved the best score of five out of five stars, and despite an increase in requests was able to complete two thirds of the new requests within 30 days. We believe that this is a benchmark that all government departments should be able to achieve.

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