Access to information system too often a barrier to transparency

Results from the Canadian Newspaper Association’s (CNA) third National Freedom of Information Audit show persistent delays and misunderstandings in the very system that is designed to guarantee the public’s right to information about government decisions.

The audit, published in Canadian newspapers and on the CNA website today, compiles the experiences of journalists from 30 newspapers and the Canadian Press news service. The journalists requested government and court records in nine of 10 provinces as well as from six federal government departments and agencies. The records were deemed “refused or denied” if not released within the statutory period of thirty business days that is standard in Canada. "Year after year, newspapers show through this exercise that many Canadian governments have a flawed understanding of the importance of transparency to the democratic system,” said Anne Kothawala, President and CEO of the CNA.

“Transparency is exactly what underpins the accountability principle at the heart of it all. You can’t have one without the other,” added Ms. Kothawala.

The federal government ranks last amongst Canadian jurisdictions when it comes to meeting freedom of information obligations. Despite the passage of the recent Accountability Act, the federal government provided only 17% of the information requested of journalists participating in the audit. Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan led the country with 100% compliance. The audit was conducted in two phases, beginning with in-person or telephone requests. If records were not released when asked for, they proceeded to file written requests under freedom of information laws. Nearly half of these initial requests were refused.

“That is a really high number,” Ms. Kothawala said. “These were not difficult or sensitive subjects. National security was not involved. If information is disclosable under the law, you should just get it when you ask for it. Imagine having to fill out a form to obtain the change you are entitled to at the supermarket check-out. The requirement to seek the information under access to information acts as a barrier not a facilitator of the public’s right to know in too many cases.”