Ottawa Routinely Breaks the Law in Treatment of Media Requests under Access to Information, Newspapers Claim

CNA Asks Information Commissioner to Investigate Secret Rules that Block Transparency

The federal government is applying bureaucratic systems that filter access to information requests made by media and subject them to scrutiny that causes unfair delays, in violation of Canada’s Access to Information Act, Canadian Newspaper Association President and CEO Anne Kothawala said today.

“We now have proof of something newspapers have long suspected: media requests for government information take longer to process because they are subjected to such a degree of scrutiny and even censorship, that often whatever prompted the request in the first place loses relevance or ceases to be topical,” Ms. Kothawala said.

Speaking to a national conference on Access to Information in Ottawa, Ms. Kothawala said freedom of information law is supposed to be applied fairly and without discrimination. “How ironic that secret rules are being applied to legislation that is meant to counter secrecy,” she said.

With the federal government currently drafting legislation to reform the Access to Information Act, Ms. Kothawala said it is all the more pressing to get the issue of secret rules on the table. She said she would hand-deliver her complaint to the Information Commissioner, who also spoke at the conference, asking him to urgently investigate how media requests are treated.

Ms. Kothawala cited recent research by Canadian scholars that revealed how the federal government applies information management systems to red-flag journalists’ requests under freedom of information law. However it wasn’t until the Gomery Commission heard evidence from a government Access to Information coordinator that political interference enabled by the filtering systems, including attempts to thwart the release of information deemed embarrassing, was laid bare.

“If it weren’t for the dogged persistence of newspaper journalists, the sponsorship scandal would never have come to light,” Ms. Kothawala said. “In this case, fortunately, the trail did not go cold despite delays of up to two years in processing information requested.”

Ms. Kothawala noted that in his annual report for 2004-2005, Information Commissioner John Reid said he received 50% more complaints regarding delays than in the previous year. The report cites “top-heavy approval processes, including too much ‘hand wringing’ over politically sensitive requests and too-frequent hold-ups in ministers’ offices” as one of the causes.

“The government has promised a bill this fall to improve Access to Information, and we are eager to see it,” Ms. Kothawala said. “But it is not encouraging to note in the meantime that they’ve launched a review to study the merger of the offices of the Privacy Commissioner and the Information Commissioner. Merging these two offices is a ‘red herring.’ Canadians want to see the government taking steps to ensure transparency and accountability, not bureaucratic shuffleboard.”