Media access requests often delayed, censored, group says
Shouldn't matter who makes request, information czar says
The Ottawa Citizen
Friday, September 09, 2005
The Canadian Newspaper Association says government agencies regularly delay and censor media requests for data, and it has asked federal information watchdog John Reid to investigate.
While Mr. Reid wouldn't commit to a full probe after speaking yesterday at a national conference on the Access to Information Act, he said it "shouldn't matter who the hell" makes a request.
"That's what the law says," the information commissioner said, adding his office is already trying to deal with the problem and protect requesters' privacy.
At issue is the government process of flagging, or "amber-lighting," politically sensitive requests made under the act by journalists and parliamentarians.
A 2003 investigation by journalist Ann Rees found these "red files" are passed along to government spin doctors charged with protecting their political masters from public embarrassment.
The spin doctors review them before they are released.
Syracuse University professor Alasdair Roberts, an access to information expert, did a further study of the system.
He and found the system leads to "unjustifiable delays in the disclosure of information." Using government data, he determined the refusal rate for media requests was more than twice that of regular requests.
In his 2004-05 annual report, Mr. Reid noted he received 50-per-cent more complaints regarding delays than the year before. He cited "top-heavy approval processes" and "too much hand-wringing over politically sensitive requests" as some of the reasons why.
Anne Kothawala, president of the Canadian Newspaper Association, suggested yesterday that lengthy disclosure delays have the same effect as rejecting requests outright.
"Let's be clear, delay is particularly injurious to media," she said. "It can kill a story, for stories are temporary constructions of fact that collapse without the support of critical information."
In an interview later, Ms. Kothawala added press access to documents is essential to keeping an eye on how tax dollars are spent and what the government is doing to protect citizens' safety and security.
A spokesman for Treasury Board, which is responsible for administering the act, called the newspaper association's comments "exaggerated."
"Suggestions that 'secret rules' are being applied government-wide to requests from media organizations to unnecessarily delay them are untrue," Robert Makichuk said in an e-mail statement.
"Government departments routinely prepare ministers and senior officials to respond to notable issues stemming from requests from all sources, be they from individuals, members of Parliament, organizations or media outlets."
Yesterday's conference comes as the federal government examines how to reform the current Access to Information Act, which allows members of the public to request government documents for a $5 fee.
Critics have slammed the 22-year-old legislation as antiquated and filled with loopholes.
Justice Minister Irwin Cotler has promised to present a draft reform bill in the near future.
Mr. Reid told the conference it's essential "we go into the process of renewing our act with our eyes wide open and our 'BS detector' on high alert."
He is also working on his own draft legislation, which would radically expand the act. Currently, only about 50 of more than 200 government departments, agencies, foundations and Crown corporations are subject to the provisions.
Some exemptions include VIA Rail and Canada Post.
Mr. Reid argued all organizations which spend public funds or discharge public functions should be covered.
He also argued against the government's recent musings about merging his office with that of the federal privacy commissioner.
© The Ottawa Citizen 2005
The Ottawa Citizen