World Press Freedom Panel

In keeping with World Press Freedom Day, INK+BEYOND 2013 hosted a World Press Freedom Panel comparing and contrasting accessibility of information in Canada and the United States.

The panel included Suzanne Legault, information commissioner of Canada, and Miriam Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services in the United States and was moderated by Jim Brunskill of The Canadian Press.

Beginning the discussion was Canada’s information commissioner. Legault expressed her overall lack of confidence in Canada’s access to information system and questions the Canadian’s government’s claims and actions. According to Legault, the government reportedly invested $15 million in recent years in the access to information regime in which they claimed to have maintained its level of performance notwithstanding the increased complexity of requests.

“These statements need to be addressed,” said Legault. “Even though my annual report last year reflected, perhaps for the first time, mild optimism, I have noted at the time the fragility of the system. What I have seen unfold this past fiscal year confirms to me how quickly performance deteriorates.”

There has been an eight percent increase in access delay complaints, when in the previous three years numbers were down.

Nisbet, too, continues to see delays in responses to requests, however, unlike Canada’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the United States’ Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is amended regularly.

Approximately every 10 years since its 1966 inception, FOIA has been updated and, according to Nisbet, is the one thing both the Democrats and Republicans can agree on.

“The Freedom of Information Act is a cornerstone of democracy,” said Nisbet. “In the United States, the cost of administering our Freedom of Information Act is somewhere a little over $400 million a year, which is quite a substantial amount of money. I think that was not something that was ever contemplated when the law was passed. It’s a fundamental way of how the government should work but nobody has every put money in it specifically to make that happen.”

Legault revealed that journalists made 11 percent of information requests in Canada, while Nisbet reported 10 percent in the U.S.

“I think it’s really important in this information age to have a valid of Access to Information Act for various reasons, if only to look at it from an economic and pragmatic perspective,” said Legault. It is becoming a competitive advantage to have an informed citizenry in this day in age.”