Right to Know: A dwindling right in Canada?

Right to Know Day advocates that freedom of information is essential to democracy and good governance. By Alexandra Theodorakidis, for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression September 28 marks Right to Know Day, an annual day to celebrate that “access to information is a right of everyone.” The day promotes the goal of everyone being able…

Right to Know Day advocates that freedom of information is essential to democracy and good governance.

By Alexandra Theodorakidis, for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression

September 28 marks Right to Know Day, an annual day to celebrate that “access to information is a right of everyone.” The day promotes the goal of everyone being able to make information requests to their government and receive that information in a speedy manner, and for free.

In Canada, Right to Know Day is celebrated with a week of events across the country. But as Canadians, our right to know is increasingly being challenged.

Access denied

Access to information laws exist so that citizens can hold a government responsible and accountable for their decisions, and are an essential part of any functioning democracy. While Canada’s federal government has an access to information system available to all Canadians, the system is severely failing to meet its minimum requirements, let alone adequately serve the population’s needs.

According to the Centre for Law and Democracy, Canada’s Access to Information (ATI) system currently ranks 56 out of 89 countries, just below Colombia and Mongolia. Established in 1983, Canada’s Access to Information Act was an innovative piece of legislation meant to improve democracy in Canada. But the Act is now painfully out of date, and the system is rapidly deteriorating due to an increasing lack of resources including staffing and budget cuts.

In the year from April 1, 2012 to March 31, 2013, 55,145 Access to Information requests were filed with the Canadian federal government. Approximately 65% of those requests were completed within the statutory time limit of 30 days. But of those completed requests, only 21.6% of recipients received all of the information they requested. It is common for information that is released through an ATI request to contain multiple pages of redacted information. While it is becoming increasingly clear that Canada’s ATI system is in grave need of reform, the problems with the system seemingly point to the deeper issue of internal censorship and a growing culture of secrecy within the federal government.

“I am not the first information commissioner that’s been saying the system is failing. What I’m saying now is, failing dangerously. To the point where we’re not actually meeting our legal obligations.” – Suzanne Legault, Information Commissioner of Canada

The Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada has expressed concern over the increasing secrecy of the federal government, saying the amount of information being released by the government “has consistently decreased. So there is not a big push towards transparency.”

Silencing scientists

Policies put into place by the federal government in 2007 to control interviews by Environment Canada have made it more difficult for media to have access to their scientists. Senior federal scientists have to seek permission from government officials before giving interviews about their findings, and in some cases written answers have to be approved by supervisors before publication. An analysis from 2010 showed an 80 percent decrease in the amount of media coverage concerning climate change since the implementation of the policies.

Earlier this month, a request from The Canadian Press to speak with Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist Max Bothwell about a study he co-authored on Didymo (rock algae) led to 110 pages of government emails on whether the interview should be allowed. The emails circulated between 16 government departments in an effort to find a list of “approved responses” to media questions.

This is just one of many examples of how scientific research being conducted by government-funded scientists is being blocked from the public. This research could impact the lives of Canadians, yet the information is withheld and the scientists who conducted the research are muzzled in order for the government to put forth a specific communications strategy.

Increasing government secrecy

Government secrecy has also been extended to talks on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed trade deal involving multiple countries including the United States.  The Canadian government has remained quiet about many aspects of the TPP as well as any impact it will have on Canadians. As with the withholding of scientific research, the closed-door negotiations of the TPP violate Canadians right to know critical information in the public interest. The TPP could affect privacy rights of Canadians, with laws leading to content blocking and monitoring of online activities. Intellectual property rights could also become an issue. The policies that are being negotiated are markedly different from existing policies and laws in Canada. Yet even still, what we know is limited due to the opaque negotiation process.

What all of this means is the right of Canadians to know what their government is doing, and any potential impact on citizens’ lives, is being obstructed. The problems with Canada’s ATI system cannot be fixed unless the government is held accountable to its transparency requirements. In censoring information, the government is controlling and restricting public debate on critical issues that affect all Canadians. Right to Know Day is a chance to reflect on what we need to know, and what we need to do to make that possible.

Right to Know Day

Right to Know Day is marked each year on September 28, by more than 40 countries and 60 non-governmental organizations with the purpose of raising “awareness of an individual’s right to access government information.” It also advocates that freedom of information is “essential to democracy and good governance.” The decision to establish a Right to Know Day was made in 2002 at a Freedom of Information litigation conference, and coincided with the establishment of the International Freedom of Information Advocates Network (FOIAnet). The network marks the event each year by presenting the Golden Key award to citizens, journalists and NGOs who actively exercise their right to access to information. An anti-award is also presented to organizations that lack transparency.

This piece was originally written for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). Alexandra Theodorakidis is a freelance journalist based in Toronto and a CJFE volunteer.