Canada's access to information system is in a deep crisis and without urgent reforms could soon become dysfunctional. That would be a blow to Canada's democracy, according to the new report by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), titled A Hollow Right: Access to information in crisis.
The report, submitted today as part of a national consultation by the Office of the Information Commissioner, details CJFE’s recommendations for reform of Canada’s 30 year-old access to information law which has failed to prevent growing delays in releasing documents, increasing redaction of information for national security reasons, and a general creep of secrecy in government.
When it was first created in 1982, the Access to Information (ATI) system placed Canada among the vanguard of nations developing laws around how to make information available – but after 30 years of neglect, the Canadian system has fallen behind.
“We welcome the call from the Office of the Information Commissioner for dialogue about reforming the system, but it is crucial that the Government of Canada listens and takes action," says CJFE Board member Bob Carty, co-author of the report. "We’ve seen too many calls for reform fall on deaf ears - including the Conservative Party which has abandoned its electoral promises to amend and improve access to information.”
CJFE makes a series of recommendations in its report, based upon the following principles:
- The default action for dealing with information should be to release it, not refuse it. Access should be the norm, secrecy the exception.
- Exceptions and exemptions to the right of access must be discretionary, narrowly defined and subject to both a test of actual harm and a mandatory public interest override. Canada's access law should cover the federal cabinet and its documents – with limited exemptions for confidentiality; Canada is alone with South Africa as the only countries with access laws that exclude cabinet information.
- The government, its agencies and its employees have a duty to create records about their deliberations, communications and policy decisions.
- Access to information needs to be “embedded into the design of public programs from the outset.”