In spite of increased calls for accountability and governments’ commitments to improve transparency, the Canadian Newspaper Association (CNA) has found that most Canadian governments continue to be unacceptably lax in fulfilling legislative obligations to uphold freedom of information laws.
Published in newspapers across Canada today, the CNA’s second National Freedom of Information Audit, which tested access to information systems in 10 Canadian provinces, shows that Canadians are likely to face unreasonable barriers in obtaining basic, uncontroversial information that should be readily available. Out of more than a hundred information requests submitted by reporters from 39 newspapers and the Canadian Press news agency, the information requested was denied or provided only in part in nearly one third (31%).
“Freedom of information is a cornerstone of democracy,” said Anne Kothawala, President and CEO of the CNA. “It allows not just journalists but also business, labour and advocacy groups, as well as ordinary citizens, to find out what elected officials are doing with their tax dollars and to hold them to account. When governments conceal or deny essential information, they effectively suppress a fundamental right – the right to know.”
The audit, conducted last spring but held for release at the start of Right to Know Week, sought answers to questions of general interest, such as municipal spending on herbicides and pesticides, bonuses paid to local hospital executives, crime statistics and information about federal preparations in the event of pandemics. Reporters acting as ordinary citizens, but without concealing their identities as journalists, often faced weeks of delays in obtaining responses to straightforward questions – if their queries were answered at all.
As in 2005, the federal government was one of the poorest performers, failing to provide responses within the statutory 30-day period mandated in law. Only one of six requests received a response, and the answer, which was that the records requested did not exist, took 90 days to process. The five other requests remained unanswered nearly five months after being submitted.
“Despite the Conservatives’ election pledge to make government more transparent and accountable, there is no evidence that anything has changed with the change in government. Federal officials routinely frustrate access to information requests from journalists,” Ms. Kothawala said.
The CNA survey noted some improvements and encouraging trends since the release of its first FOI audit in May 2005. However, the results continue to show dramatically different access rates among provinces and municipalities. The report also documents the refusal of some officials to even acknowledge possession of, let alone to disclose, the information requested.
As noted, results of this year’s Freedom of Information Audit are being released at the start of Right to Know Week, which is being marked for the first time in Canada. The initiative is a collective effort by Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial information commissioners to build public awareness of citizens’ rights to public information.