Friday, February 1, 2013

Press freedom committee demands end to government culture of secrecy

OTTAWA, January 31, 2013 /Canada NewsWire/ - An Ottawa-based press freedom watchdog is challenging the federal government to dismantle its culture of secrecy by reforming the country's Access to Information legislation, with a parallel shift in attitudes toward citizens' rights to obtain public records.

The Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom (CCWPF), a non-profit body whose mission is to celebrate and advocate for freedom of expression nationally and internationally, has submitted a 10-page report to the Office of the Information Commissioner as part of the Open Dialogue Consultations on reforming the Access to Information Act.

"It is time to bring Canada's Access to Information Act into the 21st century and to restore Canada's former leadership in the field,"
said Hugh Winsor, member of the Board of Directors of CCWPF and one of the two co-authors of the report, noting that the ranking of Canada's access legislation, compared to 92 countries has fallen to 55th place according to a study by the Centre for Law and Democracy in September 2012.

"Access to information must not be seen as a privilege, but rather as a fundamental right of citizens," added Winsor.

Describing the current culture of secrecy surrounding access to information, the report expressed great concern for:

...The growing wait times for the release of information under Access to Information - often well beyond the statutory 30 days. This works to the major disadvantage of deadline-driven journalists, which in turn limits the public's right to know.

...The increasing extent of redaction (editing, deleting of sensitive portions) of released documents with requesters receiving all of the documentation they request in only 15 percent of all requests submitted in 2010 compared to 41 percent in 2000.

...The tripling of exemptions for international affairs and defence since 2002-2003.

...Government officials avoiding the creation of records, for example by not taking minutes to meetings. Among changes to the law and procedures, the CCWPF report recommended:

...The Cabinet, the House of Commons, the Senate and the Judiciary, currently excluded from the ATIA through a blanket exemption must be brought under the Act with protocols developed for circumstances when confidentiality is essential.

...A number of agencies and public institutions such as, for example, airport authorities that are currently exempt, should be subject to the law, with a clear definition of what constitutes a public institution.

...Exemptions to the release of information should be minimized and the onus on the government department to prove that non-disclosure is necessary.

...Modernization and simplification of requests for information processes making them less expensive and more user-friendly for the average citizen.

More Power to Information Commissioner

The submission also recommended a significant strengthening of the powers of the Information Commissioner, both in terms of administrative procedures and with regard to the right to examine contested records to determine if they qualify for exemption.

"If a department or agency wishes to defy a commissioner's order to disclose, the onus should be the department or agency to contest it in Federal Court and not on the information requester as is the current practice," Winsor said.