Journalism matters Worldwide - Fight for FoI rights

As Canada’s Right To Know Week draws to a close, information campaigners have complained that the media is hampered by delays from government, fees for FOI requests and legislation which lacks enforcement.

The Canadian Newspaper Association, representing the country’s daily papers, has called for an end to the obstruction of reporters by the government.

The first Right To Know Week took place last year – an initiative of the country’s information commissioners, trying to highlight the barriers they face helping the public access information.

But La Presse newspaper in Montreal recently filed a complaint after it failed to gain access to information from Canada’s border security agency. The government branch claimed it would take 52,000 staff hours and the paper would be charged $526,000 (£260,000).

David Gollob, senior vice-president of policy and communications with the CNA, said it is another question in the public interest that must be answered. ‘The question was about terrorist subjects entering Canada,’he said. ‘How could that agency possibly be doing their jobs and not access that information easily?

‘When officials run out of road blocks, fees are one they resort to.”

Many reporters are still embroiled in costly court battles in an effort to force agencies to release information.

Canada’s access to information laws were written in the Eighties and, on the national level, have yet to be updated. But there is also legislation unique to each of the 10 provinces and three territories, making for a complex web of rules for journalists to navigate. Charges for filing FOI requests vary across the country. Nova Scotia raised its fee from $5 to $25 in 2002 and saw the number of applications drop by 27 per cent.

It is often easier to gain information on Canada from foreign countries. In 2005, revelations about testing of Agent Orange on a Canadian military base in the Sixties were only revealed through US Freedom of Information laws.

Gollob said requests from the media are increasingly being refused or delayed, and information commissioners are without teeth to force governments to release information. And he said the situation was getting worse.

The Canadian federal government responded to only 17 per cent of requests within the statutory time limit, according to an annual CNA audit where dozens of daily newspapers team up to show readers on front pages what information their governments refuse to disclose.

Gollob said that British journalists should work to protect the law as it stands and should put it to good use, ensuring that it is respected on both sides of the table. ‘The British system is new and able to benefit from other countries and experts around the world. The importance is not the letter of the law, but the spirit with which that law is carried out,’he said.

‘In Canada, there has never been any enforcement or prosecution. Despite repeated violations of access to information legislation, including destruction of documents, nobody has ever been charged.”

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