May 3 is World Freedom Day.
If asked, most Canadians would say that free expression is their right to say/write/yell or blog anything they want. Unfortunately, they would only be half right.
The essence of free expression is firmly lodged in the Declaration of Human Rights passed in 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations including a yes vote from Canada. It said everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to seek and receive information and ideas through the media.
After 65 years, Canada doesn’t do too badly on the right to speak freely, but terribly when it comes to the flow of information from our federal, provincial or municipal governments about what they have done. Proud Canadians should blush in horror when they learn that last year Canada ranked number 55 out of 93 countries that have laws that allow requests for documents about what their governments have done. Canada is snuggled just behind the Slovak Republic. Ottawa can still claim, if they want to, that we are ahead of Angola and Thailand – without mentioning that these two countries are not known for being champions of free speech or a free press.
Canada ranks so low because our law passed 31 years ago needs a major overhaul. Journalists, people interested in public policy, and others, including Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), have been asking for years for changes to make the law and the Access to Information (ATI) process really work. Why? Because government after government – Conservative and Liberal– have refused to do so, seemingly because they believed that the more information that is kept from the public and the media, the better. And that was even before the birth of the Harper government which values information secrecy as high as it does the oil in the sands of Alberta.
And how is it done? By using a number of ruses:
– Delay, delay, delay—although the law says replies should be made within 30 days, 45% of responses take longer than that, and 23% take longer than 60 days. The record holder for long delays is the Defence Department which took 1.100 days to respond to one request.
– When the feds do reply much of it is redacted, which is a short word for pages with a lot of black lines through the words, making it impossible to really know what happened and why. In 2011-12, only 21% of requests were fully answered.
– Regulations which exempt certain political offices and government departments from having to provide any documentation on how and why they made the decisions they did.
What does all this mean to you, to Canadians? First of all, it is harder, sometimes impossible, for people to keep their governments accountable. It also means that denying or delaying hard data to journalists often stops important stories from ever getting done. In this age of complex issues, what the public doesn’t know is often as important as what it does.
Together, the record of the feds and many of the provinces in dealing with ATI leads advocates for free expression to claim that a “cult of secrecy” exists in Canada. Others consider the silencing of federally-funded scientists, cuts in research funding, and vicious attacks on environmentalists who don’t agree with government policy– particularly on the construction of oil pipelines and climate change — are more evidence that politics and secrecy rather than the peoples’ right to know are supreme in Ottawa right now.
To make the situation better, CJFE believes a fundamental shift in philosophy and regulations must be made by turning the entire process on its head: “The default action for dealing with requests for information should be to release it, not refuse it. Access should be the norm, secrecy the exception.”
We teach schoolchildren that Canada is a democracy and that democracy is the best form of government in the world, certainly better than any other devised. Implied in that is the right to a free expression system that flows both ways, from us as individuals or in groups when we want to express ourselves, and from our governments to us when ask how and why something happened. The motto we often use to define how this country works should be expanded to include the word open, making it read “Peace, Order and Good Open Government”.
To read CJFE’s Review of Free Expression in Canada published today please go to:
Arnold Amber is president of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. He is the previous director of CWA Canada, the parent union of the Canadian Media Guild, and a former executive producer at CBC.