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Why We Need Better Access to Information

Why We Need Better Access to Information

Written by
Shawn McCarthy
on
January 2nd, 2019

Canada’s current Access to Information system is broken, and the real fix must come with political will, additional resources, and a more thorough revamp.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

“Knowledge is power” goes the ancient, time-tested aphorism. And true knowledge is based on information—verifiable facts that may get muddied by context but hold true like firm footing on a sloppy path.

Around the world, in the United States and, to a lesser degree, in Canada, an epistemology has emerged that treats information as so many goods are used in our consumer society: valued or disregarded and discarded based on personal preference and convenience.

Journalism, done well, is the stuff of facts; these facts are collated and curated by producers, reporters, editors, and designers to present the truest information that can be mustered in rapid-paced, often under-resourced newsrooms.

And so autocratic and bombastic leaders attack. Whether it is the imprisonment of reporters in Myanmar and Turkey, or the constant stream of vitriol hurled at the mainstream media by President Donald Trump, the objective is the same: to silence and undermine a free press that will hold them to account.

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Clearly, a critical ingredient for responsible journalism is access to information, whether held by public institutions or businesses whose decisions are felt throughout our communities.

In the political sphere, there will always be tension between journalists and other advocates who demand complete transparency in government decision-making, and politicians and bureaucrats who worry such an approach would stifle free and open debate within and among government departments.

In the thirty-five years since the federal Access to Information Act was first passed, the balance has clearly favored the keepers of secrets. And in a world where citizens have become increasingly distrustful, undue secrecy can fuel cynicism and erosion of democratic institutions.

True knowledge is based on information—verifiable facts that may get muddied by context but hold true like firm footing on a sloppy path.

As I write this, the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs is holding hearings on Bill C-58, which amends the Act.

The legislation is the result of a Liberal campaign promise to improve transparency of government operations, but it is something of a mess. Even as his government passed the bill through the Commons, Scott Brison, the treasury board president, invited the Senate to make several amendments to fix shortcomings that were identified during and after the Commons debate. In her appearance before the committee in October, Canada’s information commissioner Caroline Maynard also urged the Senate to make amendments, without which the current bill would not “represent a marked improvement on the status quo.”

Like other journalistic advocacy groups, the Canadian Committee on World Press Freedom submitted our views to the Senate committee, which supports Ms. Maynard’s call for important changes to improve the bill. Whatever the Senate does with the bill, it is only the beginning of the needed reform.

To put it bluntly, the current Access to Information system is broken. Records are often heavily censored with little justification, as if the first instinct is to redact. It’s safer that way, one supposes.

Delays can stretch into many months, even years. Regularly, stories circulate in the press gallery about responses that come back many years after a request was made, after the sitting government had left office and the issue at the centre of the request had passed.

As we said in our submission, the excessive length of time it often takes in responding to Access to Information requests is particularly troublesome for journalists, who have responsibility to inform the public about current government actions, including policy-making and meetings with special interests. While the Senate has an opportunity to improve certain aspects of the Access system, it cannot address the more basic problems. Ms. Maynard noted the legislation requires a review of the system one year after it is proclaimed into law.

The excessive length of time it often takes in responding to Access to Information requests is particularly troublesome for journalists, who have responsibility to inform the public about current government actions, including policy-making and meetings with special interests.

The Liberal government will have to find the political will to address fundamental issues the bill does not address. Those issues include ensuring Access to Information offices have the resources they need to respond in a timely manner, with better processes, training, and technology.

“If the Government of Canada wants to reassert its leadership as an open and transparent government that is a model for all democratic nations, the Access to Information Act will need further amendment,” the commissioner told the Senators. A key item to be addressed: reducing the wide range of exemptions and exclusions that keeps information out of the public view.

It may seem a large leap to mention Canada’s Access to Information shortfalls in the same paragraph as Myanmar’s jailing of Reuters journalists for reporting on the Rohinga massacres, or Donald Trump’s disinformation campaign in which he berates major media outlets as purveyors of “fake news.” But Canada is not immune from the forces that threaten the gathering and dissemination of credible, verifiable information.

As we noted to the Senate committee, “The poor state of Canada’s [Access to Information] law is especially concerning in an era when various hostile actors, some of them elected representatives, are determined to distort and undermine information for the purposes of acquiring and maintaining power. Freedom-of-information legislation can act as an important check on the deliberate falsehoods that can infect public discourse.”


The Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom is a volunteer group of journalists, ex-journalists, and supporters who advocate on issues of press freedom. It works with the patronage of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO and receives funding from the Canadian Bankers Association.

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