Friday, December 14, 2012
Originally published in the Toronto Star
Mae Azango (Photo: Diana Zlomislic/Toronto Star)
by Kathy English, Public Editor, Toronto Star
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has relatively little challenge in galvanizing journalists in support of free expression: It’s what we passionately believe in, after all.
The bigger challenge is to convince you that what we believe matters — in effect, to build a more encompassing network of “Canadians for Free Expression.”
How can that be achieved in a country where most citizens take for granted the freedom of expression granted by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
For the CJFE, this begins by aiming to “enrage and engage
” you with the revelation of a number that I think it is fair to say comes as a shock even to most journalists.
That number is the result of a recent study by the Centre for Law and Democracy that ranked the strength and effectiveness of global access to information laws. Of 93 countries ranked, where do you suppose Canada stands?
We stand at 55
. This is a drop from a year ago when Canada was ranked at an embarrassing 40th in the effectiveness of laws intended to guarantee that all Canadians — journalists and citizens — have a right to public government information that is not supposed to be kept secret.
We’ve moved from a result that is embarrassing to Canada to one that is shameful. This should matter to all of us.
“If you are going to have a democracy, you have to have a citizenry that knows the essence of the issues,” CJFE president Arnold Amber told the more than 500 journalists and others gathered Wednesday night for the organization’s annual gala to honour courageous reporting.
“You don’t need to be a journalist to be for free expression” he said.
CJFE points out, quite rightly, that access to public information is a critical component of our right to freedom to expression. It’s how we hold governments to account.
The organization has now launched a public campaign to convince Canadians that “what you don’t know can hurt you.”
CJFE is seeking public input through a brief survey on its website
to gather your views on Canada’s access to information system. That information will be included in the CJFE’s submission to a current review of Canada’s 30-year-old Access to Information Act.
Suzanne Legault, Canada’s information commissioner, launched the review in September and is seeking public consultation until Dec. 21
I have little doubt it’s time for an overhaul of Canada’s FOI laws and the inconsistent way they are carried out. As CJFE points out, in 1982, Canada was one of the first countries to adopt a “right to information” law. Then, we were considered a world leader in openness.
Now, it says: “our access to information system is mired by delays, extensions, exceptions and exemptions — and, on occasion, by blatant political interference, the destruction of documents and intentional failure to create records.”
Any Canadian journalist who has tried to use our FOI legislation to get public information can attest to all of that. The Star’s journalists make frequent requests and are often blocked. This is not right or just, and I think you should be told every time a government at any level stands in the way of your knowing what you have a right to know.
Silencing free expression, blocking citizens’ right to information is routine operating procedure in repressive regimes. Last year, 102 journalists around the world lost their lives doing their jobs, 32 of them in Syria alone.
We take much comfort in Canada in the fact that journalists here aren’t killed or jailed for reporting the news. But free expression is not just an international issue.
Information always matters. And standing up for the freedom to know and express what we know matters whether we live in a democracy or a dictatorship.
As Mae Azango, the Liberian journalist who was honoured by the CJFE
with an International Press Freedom Award for stories that broke the silence about female genital mutilation in her country, said Wednesday night: “Information is ammunition.”
Azango faced death threats for her exposes and had to go into hiding for many months. Happily, she lived to tell her tale, to speak truth to power.
“I am not done yet. I won’t keep quiet,” Azango said.
In Canada, our struggle for free expression clearly isn’t done yet. And we shouldn’t keep quiet either.