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Arnold Amber


What the Government Is Hiding Should Make Canadians "Blush in Horror"

Posted: 05/03/2013 12:29 pm

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".

You can read CJFE's Review of Free Expression in Canada here.

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  • 10th WORST Country For Press Freedom: Sudan

    Sudanese Minister of Information Kamal Mohammed Obeid unveils in front of journalists the new map of Sudan in Khartoum on July 4, 2011 ahead of the formal independence of the south on July 9. AFP PHOTO/ASHRAF SHAZLY (Photo credit should read ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 9. Cuba

    Cuban opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez listens to a question from a journalist outside a Migration Office, on January 14, 2013 in Havana. A law allowing Cubans to travel abroad without special exit visas took effect on the communist-ruled island for the first time in half a century. The measure does away with the exit visas that have kept most Cubans from ever traveling abroad. AFP PHOTO/ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 8. Vietnam

    A street newspaper vendor looks at the building of the Hanoi People's Court where two journalists are standing trial for their coverage of a major state corruption scandal on October 15, 2008 in Hanoi. The court sentenced one of them, Nguyen Viet Chien from Thanh Nien daily to two years in prison being found guilty of 'abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state'. AFP PHOTO/HOANG DINH Nam

  • 7. China

    Police take the details of foreign journalists outside the studio of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in Beijing on November 14, 2011. The lawyer for Ai Weiwei Pu Zhiqiang said the tax office in Beijing has refused to accept money the activist needs to pay in order to lodge an appeal against a huge tax bill. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 6. Iran

    Jens Koch one of the two German reporters freed by the Iranian authority, is seen at Tehran's Mehrabbad Airport after arriving from Tabriz on February 19, 2011. The German reporters Marcus Hellwig and Koch, who were held by the authorities for interviewing the son and lawyer of a woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, were freed after the courts commuted their jail terms to 50,000-dollar fines. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE

  • 5. Somalia

    Somali journalists holding up the picture of their colleague arrested, Abdiaziz Abdinor Ibrahim, participate in a meeting for condemning his long term in jail on January, 27, 2013 in Mogadishu. General attorney of Somali nation Abdikadir Mohamed Muse, announced on Saturday that the Somali police investigation on Abdiaziz ended and will be courted. Abdiaziz has been accused of reporting false rape, and giving the women bribery so as to tell lie. Lul Ali Osman, the rape victim told to the journalist she was rapped by five Somali police-dressed men, but the police refused that. AFP PHOTO MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB HAJIABIKAR (Photo credit should read MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB HAJIABIKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 4. Syria

    A Syrian man reads the daily state-run newspaper Tishrin in a cafe decorated with portraits of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on April 3, 2011. Syria's former agriculture minister Adel Safar was asked by the president to form a new government, the state-run news agency SANA reported. AFP PHOTO/ANWAR AMRO

  • 3. Turkmenistan

    ASHGABAD, TURKMENISTAN: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (R) sit during their meeting in Ashgabat, 11 May 2007. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov promised closer energy ties on Friday as the Kremlin leader continued a visit challenging European and US influence in the Caspian region. AFP PHOTO / ITAR-TASS POOL / PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE (Photo credit should read MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 2. North Korea

    Journalists try to get a glimpse of North Korean mourners at a North Korean restaurant watching a telecast of the funeral of the late leader Kim Jong-Il, at the North Korean and Chinese border town of Dandong on December 28, 2011. North Korea is preparing a massive ceremonial farewell to late leader Kim Jong-Il as it strove to strengthen a new personality cult around his youthful son and successor Jong-Un. The secretive state has so far given no details of the December 28 funeral for its 'Dear Leader' of the past 17 years. But analysts say the regime, as it did in 1994 when Kim Jong-Il's own father died, will use the event to shore up loyalty to the new leader and will likely mobilise hundreds of thousands of people. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1. Eritrea

    File picture of a woman walking near a monument erected in memory of the martyrs of the Ethiopia-Eritrea's war that started in 1998 and lasted four years, in the disputed Horn of Africa border town of Badme between Ethiopia and Eritrea on November 5, 2008. Tensions remain high in this border zone between Ethiopia and Eritrea after the withdrawal of UN peace keepers in charge of monitoring the border. The village was the starting point of the two and a half year war between the two countries in May 1998 that left at least 80.000 dead. AFP PHOTO/Stringer/FILES

  • 10th BEST Country For Press Freedom: Sweden

    Swedish artist Lars Vilks (Facing Camera) speaks to journalists after apperaring on the TV4 morning news show in Stockholm on March 10, 2010. Leading Swedish newspapers on March 10, 2010 published a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed with the body of a dog by a caricaturist who was the target of an assassination plot by Muslims arrested in Ireland. AFP PHOTO/SCANPIX/BERTIL ERICSON (Photo credit should read BERTIL ERICSON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 9. Iceland

    Prime Minister and leader of the Social-Democrats party Johanna Sigurdardottir (L and on screen) answers journalists question during a press conference in Reykjavik on April 25, 2009. Iceland's general election got underway Saturday seven months after the country's economic collapse, with voters expected to snub the party seen as responsible for the crisis in favour of the interim leftist government. Public opinion polls have suggested a comfortable victory for the pro-EU Social Democratic Party, led by Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, and its junior coalition partner the Left Green Movement. AFP PHOTO OLIVIER MORIN. (Photo credit should read OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 8. New Zealand

    French flanker Julien Bonnaire answers journalists questions upon his arrival at Paris Charles-de-Gaulle international airport at Roissy-en-France, on October 26, 2011 after flying from New Zealand where France was beaten in the Rugby World Cup final by All Blacks. The end of the Rugby World Cup has turned sour for beaten finalists France after they were fined for breaching protocols and police were called to an incident involving players and photographers. AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS GUILLOT (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 7. Liechtenstein

    Spain's midfielder Fernando Llorente (R) and defender Javier Martinez (2R) talk to journalists after a training session on September 5, 2011, on the eve of the Euro2012 qualifying football match against Liechtenstein at Las Gaunas stadium, in Logrono. AFP PHOTO/ RAFA RIVAS (Photo credit should read RAFA RIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 6. Denmark

    Jaume Bartomeu (C), head of Andorran government, answers journalists' questions on November 8, 2009 in the Massana valley in northwest Andorra, where two more workers died overnight after a bridge under construction in the Pyrenees principalty of Andorra collapsed, bringing the death toll to five. Police are investigating to determine the causes of the accident at the bridge that was to link the tunnel to a road leading to two nearby villages. AFP PHOTO / RAYMOND ROIG (Photo credit should read RAYMOND ROIG/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 5. Andorra

    Jaume Bartomeu (C), head of Andorran government, answers journalists' questions on November 8, 2009 in the Massana valley in northwest Andorra, where two more workers died overnight after a bridge under construction in the Pyrenees principalty of Andorra collapsed, bringing the death toll to five. Police are investigating to determine the causes of the accident at the bridge that was to link the tunnel to a road leading to two nearby villages. AFP PHOTO / RAYMOND ROIG (Photo credit should read RAYMOND ROIG/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 4. Luxembourg

    British Foreign Minister David Miliband (C) speaks to journalists on June 16, 2008 before a General Affairs Council meeting at EU headquarters in Luxembourg. EU foreign ministers admitted on June 16 that they had no quick-fix solution after Irish voters plunged the bloc into crisis by rejecting its reforming Lisbon Treaty. Irish voters, the only ones in Europe obliged to hold a referendum, delivered a resounding 'no' to the European Union's reform treaty by 53.4 percent to 46.6 percent on June 12, plunging the 27-member bloc into a new period of institutional uncertainty. AFP PHOTO/JOHN THYS (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 3. Norway

    The chairman of the Labor Youth of Norway, Eskil Pedersen, speaks to reporters on June 22, 2012 outside the courtroom in Oslo on the last day of the trial of Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik. His defense is trying to prove that Breivik's killing of 77 people in twin attacks in July 2011 was not an act of insanity. Even though there is no chance Breivik will be set free, his lawyers must formally make the request since their client has pleaded not guilty, despite having confessed to carrying out the murderous twin attacks on July 22, 2011, when he first bombed a government building in Oslo, killing eight people, before going on a shooting rampage on Utoeya island, northwest of the capital, where the ruling Labor Party's youth wing was hosting a summer camp. Sixty-nine people died on the island, most of them teens. Breivik, 33, has confessed to the twin attacks but has refused to plead guilty, insisting they were 'cruel but necessary' to stop the Labor Party's 'multicultural experiment' and the 'Muslim invasion' of Norway and Europe. AFP PHOTO / Stian Lysberg Solum (Photo credit should read Stian Lysberg Solum/AFP/GettyImages)

  • 2. Netherlands

    Journalists film as International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo gives a press conference at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, on January 24, 2012 one day after the ICC ruled that Kenya's deputy prime minister and another presidential hopeful are among four suspects who should be tried over deadly post-poll unrest four years ago. Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki appealed for calm in the east African country amid fears the Hague-based court's anxiously awaited confirmation of charges hearing could revive ethnic and political tensions. AFP PHOTO / ANP - MARCEL ANTONISSE netherlands out - belgium out (Photo credit should read MARCEL ANTONISSE/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1. Finland

    Journalists taste a 200-year-old champagne, on November 17, 2010 in Mariehamn. Finnish officials pop the cork of a 200-year-old bottle of champagne, after 70 bottles of what is believed to be the world's oldest bubbly were discovered on July 2010 in a shipwreck, at a depth of fifty meters, southeast of Mariehamn, on the southwestern Finnnish Aaland Islands of the Baltic Sea. AFP PHOTO/JONATHAN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)