Canada's access to information system is in deep crisis and without urgent reforms that include both technological and operational changes, it could soon become dysfunctional.
That’s the word from a new report by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), titled A Hollow Right: Access to information in crisis.
CFFE says not changing the system “would be a blow to Canada's democracy”.
The report, submitted today as part of a national consultation by the Office of the Information Commissioner, details CJFE's recommendations for reform of Canada's 30 year-old access to information law which has failed to prevent growing delays in releasing documents, increasing redaction of information for national security reasons, and a general creep of secrecy in government.
The report makes note that many access to information concepts were developed before the wide availability of digital platforms and delivery solutions.
It calls for a “modernization” of the Canadian s Canada's access to information system, including the use of digital technologies to facilitate access and electronic versions to reduce copying costs.
When it was first created in 1982, the Access to Information (ATI) system placed Canada among the vanguard of nations developing laws around how to make information available – but after 30 years of neglect, the Canadian system has fallen behind.
“We welcome the call from the Office of the Information Commissioner for dialogue about reforming the system, but it is crucial that the Government of Canada listens and takes action," said CJFE Board member Bob Carty, co-author of the Report. "We've seen too many calls for reform fall on deaf ears - including the Conservative Party which has abandoned its electoral promises to amend and improve access to information.”
CJFE makes a series of recommendations in its report, saying that the default action for dealing with information should be to release it, not refuse it. Any exceptions and exemptions to the right of access must be narrowly defined and subject to both a test of actual harm and a mandatory public interest override.
CJFE says the government, its agencies and its employees have a duty to create records about their deliberations, communications and policy decisions, and that access to information needs to be embedded into the design of public programs from the outset.
The report calls for the re-establishment of an electronic database of ATI requests; the previous system it says was scrapped by the current government.
It also notes “a deliberate strategy on the part of some parts of government” to frustrate and make more difficult the access to information process through the use of documentation in formats that are hard for some to manipulate or analyze, and it mentions a pdf document format as one example.
CJFE is based in Toronto.