Voting for free expression: Week Two – Ask your local candidates about improving access to information

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Ahead of Canada’s May 2 federal election, CJFE encourages you to ask your local candidates about their stance on critical free expression issues. Each week CJFE will post questions which you can e-mail, call or write to your candidates. We’d love to know what they say, and what your thoughts are too.

Ask your local candidates about improving Canadians' access to information

Access to information about government policies and decision-making processes is important for government transparency and accountability and encourages informed democratic debate; this is particularly crucial in the lead up to the elections.

In late March, The Canadian Press discovered that federal officials in Afghanistan have been given a gag order, according to an article published in The Globe and Mail. After a request to interview Canada’s top diplomat in Kandahar was refused, The Canadian Press learned that federal officials were ordered by the government not to grant interviews during the five weeks of the Canadian election campaign. The aim of the order appears to be to prevent officials from making public comments that could influence the outcome of the election. This order limits the ability of Canadians to be informed about their country’s mission in Afghanistan. It is important to note that the silenced officials are paid with Canadian taxpayers’ money and are in charge of publicly funded programs.

In early March, a report was released by the Informational Commissioner of Canada, Suzanne Legault which examined whether federal institutions were complying with Canada’s Access to Information Act. The Act is meant to ensure universal access to records under the control of federal institutions, with limited exceptions. In the report, Legault criticized the newly implemented Federal Accountability Act, which “introduced incongruous amendments to the access law—increasing the number of institutions covered while adding institution-specific exemptions and exclusions that limited its scope.” She also looked at response times for requests for information submitted to the institutions. Although there is a set 30 day time limit for responses, she found that over 40% of requests were not responded to within that time frame, and approximately 10% took over 120 days to be processed. (Read the full Report)

Last year, CJFE gave a failing grade to the government for its performance on access to information due to the long delays in response times for information requests and federal entities invoking national security to avoid disclosing information. This year’s Report Card will be released in May as part of CJFE’s annual review on free expression in Canada.

We invite you to ask your candidates the following:

1) If elected MP of my riding, will you take a strong stance on improving the public’s access to government information?
2) What is your opinion on restricting media interviews of officials in Afghanistan out of concern they may influence voters?

You can e-mail, call or write to the candidates in your riding, and let us know what they say on our Facebook Discussion Board. We'd love to know what your thoughts are on these issues too.

Not sure who your candidates are or how to get a hold of them? Elections Canada allows you to search by your postal code to find information on your riding.