EXTRA! EXTRA! FOI WATCHDOGS DON’T MAKE HEADLINES!

The title information commissioner doesn't make many headlines. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

The title information commissioner doesn’t make many headlines. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

PRIVACY GETS BIGGER BILLING THAN FOI In Canada’s provinces and territories, a single official is responsible for protecting the public’s information rights, as well as their privacy rights. But even when those officials are talking about information rights, some headline writers only refer to them as “privacy commissioners” or “privacy watchdogs.”

According to my count, there have been at least 84 such headlines published between 2003 and the present. For example, on August 15, the Globe and Mail reported British Columbia’s information and privacy commissioner would be looking into whether the provincial government should have told the public about the state of the Mount Polley Mine prior to the collapse of its tailings pond. But even though that story has little to do with privacy rights, it appeared in print under the headline “Privacy watchdog launches mine probe.”

By comparison, I only found 40 headlines between 2003 and the present that referred to those watchdogs using a title that was about their information rights protecting responsibilities. And that makes me wonder what impact this difference is having on how the public views privacy versus access issues.*

LEGAL BILLS ABOVE FOI LAW? British Columbia’s justice minister doesn’t think the public should have a right to know what lawyers working for the government are making. During an interview on the public affairs show Voice of BC, the minister, Suzanne Anton, was asked by BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association executive director Vincent Gogolek if her administration would stop blocking the release of that kind of information. Her response: “When things are subject to solicitor-client privilege, they are privileged.” The following is a complete transcript of that segment, which include show host Vaughn Palmer.

Gogolek: Minister, we’ve been hearing a rising number of complaints from FOI requesters who are trying to get information on how much lawyers or law firms are charging the government and the usual excuse is that somehow either handing over invoices or sometimes even just the total amount billed would violate solicitor-client privilege. Will you commit your government to stop blocking the release of this kind of information?

Anton: When things are subject to solicitor-client privilege, they are privileged.

Palmer: What about total billings by a law firm for a prominent case like the BCTF case? Is the public entitled to know what the government has spent fighting the teachers’ union in court all these years?

Anton: I think it’s a complicated question because there’s government lawyers – it’s mainly government lawyers on that case. As a matter of fact, there’s one outside counsel right now. These are not things that are generally released.

Palmer: Well, I think the public’s entitled to know something like that don’t you?

Anton: I think it’s a very interesting case and we will see where it gets to. But in terms of the bills we have policy in legal services that we follow.

THE CLOSED DOOR CLUB Why do so many Canadian politicians appear to feel so comfortable making decisions out of the public eye?

In a letter published in the North Shore News earlier this month, retiring North Vancouver district councillor Alan Nixon suggested this rationale: “I, along with many others, believe effective and efficient administration and stewardship of the taxpayers’ best interest is more important than whether the meeting gets held in-camera or in the council chamber.”

Nixon was responding to an earlier column by former councillor Trevor Carolan, who criticized how much of the district’s public business has been happening in private.

According to Carolan, in 2013, “a total of 22 regular council meetings equalled 49 hours of open business; 47 closed meetings resulted in 81 hours of closed door sessions.

But Nixon has wrote, “The meetings that have been ‘secret’ or ‘in-camera’ have been fully justified under the rules which we operate, namely the Local Government Act and the Community Charter.”

THE POWER OF THE PSA The Inter American Press Association has passed a resolution calling on governments in the Americans to tell citizens about their information rights — something our own federal access watchdog can’t do. As I earlier reported, Canada’s first information commissioner wrote about the need to raise public awareness about those rights back in 1984. But, 30 years later, the current commissioner Suzanne Legault still doesn’t have that authority.

THE TRUTH AS A CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE If religion is the opiate of the masses, is freedom of information their stimulant? That’s what Josh Gordon, state political editor for the Australian newspaper The Age, has suggested in his latest column. Writing about an attempt to withhold records about ambulance response time for people having heart attacks, Gordon states that information in the State of Victoria ‘is all too often treated as a dangerous drug, to be carefully meted out in controlled doses. Get the dose wrong and it might provoke an outbreak of ‘unnecessary debate.’ God forbid.”

SQUIBS

• American authorities told American journalists the name of Parliament Hill shooter Michael Joseph Zehaf-Bibeau long before Canadian authorities released the same information. According to Carleton University journalism professor Christopher Waddell, that may be an example of the “difference in fundamental philosophies about democracy” between the two countries. (hat tip: David Mayhood)

• A request by Prince Edward Island’s information commissioner for more government money prompts Holland College journalism instructor Rick MacLean to write, “There are many ways to hide things. Underfunding those who hold you to account is one.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Calgary Herald reports a care home provider is trying to block the release of records that would tell the public how much money it makes from its contract with the Alberta government. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• Embassy’s Carl Meyer covers his frustrating experience filing access requests for information about Canada’s relationship with Vietnam.

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

* = I searched the Canadian Newsstand database for headlines that included the words “privacy commissioner,” “privacy watchdog,” “privacy ombudsman,” “privacy ombudsperson,” “privacy officer” and “privacy review officer” above stories that included the words “freedom of information” or FOI. I also searched the same database for headlines that included the words “information commissioner,” “info commissioner,” “information watchdog,” “info watchdog,” “FOI commissioner,” “FOI watchdog,” “information ombudsman,” “info ombudsman,” “info formation ombudsperson,” “information ombudsperson,” “information review officer,” “info review officer,” “information officer” and “info officer.” But I excluded from that later search stories that included the names of federal access commissioners Suzanne Legault, John Reid or Robert Marleau.

DEBATING CANADA’S DO NOT DISTURB SIGN

Should our right to be unknown trump our right to know? (Graphic by Privacy and Access Council of Canada)

Should our right to be unknown trump our right to know? (Graphic by Privacy and Access Council of Canada)

Does our narcissistic obsession with privacy compromise our information freedoms? That’s one of the questions I’ll be addressing Friday morning at the National Privacy and Data Governance Congress in Calgary. I’ll be sharing the stage with former Canwest News Service national columnist Catherine Ford and social media influencer Lori Ruff during a panel discussion entitled “Exposing Secrets: Privacy Ethics and the Media.”

 

SCIENTISTS AREN’T THE ONLY ONES SILENCED

Scientists aren't the only ones being muzzled by the government. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

The ability of government scientists to speak out has been under a media microscope. But what about all the other bureaucrats who are being muzzled? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

THE SELECTIVE SOUND OF SILENCE? When it comes to the silencing of federal employees, government scientists seem to be most popular kids on the block.

According to Canadian Newsstand, phrases about the muzzling of those scientists have appeared in newspapers and wire services included in that database at least 280 times since the 2002 election.

But other government workers are also gagged, equally compromising Canadians right to know.

Nevertheless, similar phrases about their silencing have appeared appeared just 63 times over the same period.*

MORE POWER FOR THE FEW The federal government’s proposed new copyright law amendment could further fortify the power political parties have in comparison to other civil society groups.

Unlike charities and non-profits, those parties can engaged in unrestricted political activities and issue a tax receipt when Canadians donate to them.

The Tory’s proposed copyright law amendment could increase that advantage by allowing parties to use news content for their advertising without permission.

But, given the fact that a 2006 study estimated just one to two percent of Canadians belong to a political party on a year-to-year basis, one wonders whether all that power is deserved.

WHEN THE PRIVATE SHOULD BE PUBLIC Canada’s freedom of information law doesn’t allow the public access to disciplinary records about public servants. But that’s not always the case in the United States.

In an editorial complaining about Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act — which allows for a similar kind of shielding  — the Daily Press writes, “Other states require disclosure of this information.”

“Consider Montana, where the Supreme Court said, ‘The public has a clear and unambiguous right to know the information involved in the internal investigation of a public employee for any alleged violation of any policy, law or rule.’”

As such, the paper is urging those reviewing the Virginia’s sunshine law “to pay special attention to the personnel exemption that effectively enables” bad behaviour on the part of public officials.

Perhaps Canadians should be arguing the same thing?

* = I searched Canadian Newsstand for the phrases “gagging,” “gagged” “muzzling,” “muzzled,” “silencing” and “silenced” next to the words scientists, bureaucrats, public servants, civil servants, government employees and government workers. I limited the search to stories that included the words Harper or federal government. I then removed stories about other governments, as well as bestseller lists mentioning Chris Turner’s book The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada.

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

SUN SALE DARKENS FUTURE OF CANADIAN JOURNALISM

The potential sale of Sun Media's English-language newspapers will be a big blow to media competition and quality. (Graphic by Quebecor Media Inc.)

The potential sale of Sun Media’s English-language newspapers will be a big blow to media competition and quality. (Graphic by Quebecor Media Inc.)

Quebecor Media Inc.’s potential sale of its 175 English-language dailies may be good news for buyer Postmedia Network Canada Corp. But, in interviews yesterday with CBC’s Calgary Eyeopener, CBC’s As It Happens, CBC News Calgary, CTV Calgary and DeSmog Canada, I argued it will likely be a bad news for Canadians.

Here’s the pith of my argument: first, if the $316 million sale is approved by the Competition Bureau, one company will be able to dictate editorial direction to almost every major urban daily in country. Even if that power isn’t used, the possibility of abuse is enough to give pause to anyone concerned about democracy and debate in Canada.

Second, despite Postmedia president and chief executive officer Paul Godfrey’s assurances, this deal will likely result in layoffs and newsroom closures, further reducing the resources the fourth estate has to hold power to account in this country.

And third, the birthing of such a behemoth will almost certainly push the already endangered beat of media criticism to the brink of extinction. After all, the number of journalists willing to risk future employment by criticizing the country’s largest newspaper chain would be few and far between.

CAMPAIGN INCREASES #CDNFOI USE BY ALMOST 13 TIMES

#cdnfoi wasn't the only hashtag under consideration. (Graphic by Will Brown)

#cdnfoi wasn’t the only hashtag under consideration. (Graphic by Will Brown)

The campaign to encourage Canadians to tag stories about government secrecy with #cdnfoi on twitter has so far been a success.

According to the service Hashtracking, from September 17 to 24, there were just 79 tweets using that tag. But between September 25, the day before that campaign was officially launched, and October 2, there were 1,018. That’s almost 13 times more.

#cdnfoi usage between September 5 and October 5 (Graphic by Hashtrack)

#cdnfoi usage between September 5 and October 5. (Graphic by Hashtrack)

But what made us decide to promote #cdnfoi , which was originally created by former Canadian Press deputy Ottawa bureau chief Dean Beeby, over another hashtag?

Well, here’s the list of the other options that were under consideration by the campaign’s sponsors —  the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, the Canadian Association of Journalists, IntegrityBC and DeSmog Canada  — as well as why they weren’t selected.

#ATIP This abbreviation for access to information and privacy is common at the federal level but not at the provincial level.

ATIP, which is sometimes used as a hashtag for “a tip,” also refers to requests for information under two pieces of legislation: the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act.

By comparison, the principle of freedom of information is about more than that, encompassing the need for policies such as open meetings and less restrictive media relations policies.

Moreover, there has been some controversy over the federal Access to Information Act not being named the Freedom of Information Act. In a 2001 article published in the Canadian Parliamentary Review, former MP John Bryden wrote:

…the Canadian government has never stated that it believes in [the principle that the public's right to know is superior to whatever right to privacy public officials might have]. Indeed, it has prevaricated by the very choice of name for its freedom of information legislation: Access to Information Act. It is a cautious title, used only by Canada, Hong Kong and South Africa. It implies that people are entitled to government information but the government has no responsibility to provide it.

#FOI This abbreviation for freedom of information is common at the provincial level. But foi is also the word for faith in French and is sometimes used as a hashtag by speakers of that language.

#CDNRTK This abbreviation for Canadian right to know has the advantage of being about a powerful principle. But RTK isn’t a common abbreviation, nor is RTI, which stands for right to information.

FOI TIPS FROM VANCOUVER PRESS CLUB WORKSHOP

This is what commitment to freedom of information looks like on a Friday evening. (Photograph by Jennifer Moreau)

This is what commitment to freedom of information looks like for journalists on a Friday evening. (Photograph by Jennifer Moreau)

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION FILLS A ROOM Freedom of information isn’t a hot button issue for most Canadians. But that didn’t dampen turnout for the Vancouver Press Club’s first freedom of information workshop.

The workshop was held in a room at Simon Fraser University’s downtown campus that accommodated 62 people. But the Club managed to fill that room and then some, making it a standing room only event with more than 70 attendees.

If you missed the workshop, which featured freedom of information tips and tricks from freelancer Bob Mackin, Vancouver Sun data journalist Chad Skelton, former Canadian Press reporter Dene Moore and myself, you can check out the recording of it here:

OPEN GOVERNMENT LEADER OF FOLLOWER? On Thursday, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne made public the marching orders she gave to the province’s ministers — records that have traditionally been kept secret. According to a news release from Wynne’s office, the release of that information “brings Ontario one step closer to its goal of becoming the most open and transparent government in Canada.”

But what the release doesn’t say is Ontario is just following what is common practice in some other jurisdictions. By my count, there are at least three others provinces — British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan — that already make ministerial mandate letters public.

POWERFUL PLACES PROTECTED FROM ACCESS REQUESTS IN CANADA, NOT U.S. Federally, records exclusively held by ministers’ offices aren’t subject to freedom of information requests. But, down in the United States, similar exclusions and exemptions appear to be the exception rather the rule at the state-level.

According to a recent survey by the Detroit Free Press found Michigan and Massachusetts are the only states “in which the governor has a blanket exemption from public record laws.” In addition, those two jurisdictions are among the “fewer than a dozen states where state lawmakers have a blanket exemption.”

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING FOI REQUEST Talisman Energy Inc. has a 48,000 net acre position in British Columbia’s Montney natural gas play. It also has in-house lobbyists registered to “Influence [provincial] environmental and energy related policy, regulations and decisions to support the economic and sustainable development of shale resources in BC,” among other issues.

So it’s not surprising that when journalist Jeremy Nuttall filed a freedom of information request for communications between the company and the province’s ministry of natural gas development from May 1, 2012 to May 26, 2014 he was given a $1,218 fee estimate.

But what is surprising is that when Nuttall narrowed down the request to briefing notes relating to Talisman, as well as emails and correspondence between it and the ministry, he wasn’t given anywhere close to the 7,600 pages of records his original request had apparently netted. Instead, he was given just two.

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

SPOTLIGHT GOVERNMENT SECRECY WITH #CDNFOI

Stand up for your information rights with just a few keystrokes. (Graphic by Will Brown)

Stand up for your information rights with just a few keystrokes. (Graphic by Will Brown)

Partisans may not believe it, but Canada’s “culture of secrecy” existed long before Stephen Harper moved into the prime minister’s office. And it’ll be around long after he moves out, unless Canadians do more than just cast their ballots in the next election.

That’s why four groups concerned about freedom of information, one of which I’m part of, are launching a campaign encouraging Canadians to take a small but vital step on social media that would raise more awareness of just how much is being hidden from us: spotlighting examples of government secrecy with the hashtag #cdnfoi.

Such secrecy has its roots in our political system, which has a tradition of strict party discipline. Because of that discipline, decisions made by the government behind closed doors – in cabinet meetings, for example – are rarely defeated in the House of Commons, making secret forums the principle arbiters of public policy.

To be sure, the Harper administration has done more than its share to cultivate a backroom state, frustrating access to government records and officials, as well as failing to fix our broken freedom of information system. But Canadian society is an especially fertile ground for the growth of policies that violate our right to know.

In part, that’s because our country doesn’t have any groups that exclusively and routinely advocate for greater freedom of information at a national level. The closest we have is the small BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

But, as its name implies, the association’s two staff members toil on information and privacy issues in British Columbia and the rest of Canada from a tiny office above a beauty salon and spa in Vancouver.

Meanwhile, other organizations that care about our right to know have even more multiplicitous mandates. For example, Ottawa’s DemocracyWatch stands on guard for democratic reform and corporate responsibility, as well as freedom of information. Meanwhile, Halifax’s Centre for Law and Democracy also deals with other human rights issues abroad.

By comparison, the United States has three umbrella organizations that exclusively safeguard Americans’ right to know.

They include: OpenTheGovernment.org, representing 94 groups; the National Freedom of Information Coalition, representing 30 dues-paying groups; and the Sunshine in Government Initiative, representing nine groups.

Such umbrella organizations have always been few and far between in Canada.

In the seventies, a coalition called ACCESS: a Canadian Committee for the Right to Public Information was established to lobby for greater freedom of information.

Reports from the Globe and Mail back then described the committee as having the backing of groups such as the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Daily Newspapers Association.

But long-time right to know researcher Ken Rubin stated in an email that ACCESS, which played a key role in the creation of Canada’s current freedom of information law, was actually “primarily a group of diverse individuals” that included academics, activists and lawyers and had some “paper” affiliations with other organizations.

Despite that key role, by the eighties the committee had folded. According to Rubin, during the same decade, a “loose coalition” came together under the auspices of the Canadian Federation of Civil Liberties and Human Rights Associations to “monitor and improve” freedom of information. That coalition also “went by the wayside” once the federation “faded away.”

Then, in January 2000, investigative reporter Robert Cribb announced the formation of Open Government Canada – a “national forum for FOI networking, education and advocacy pushing for legislative changes that grant greater access to public information. “

More than 25 groups were represented at its founding conference in March of that year. However, in an email, Cribb stated the coalition “died a regretful death.”

The reason: “It proved to be impossible to lure financial support for such an endeavour – part of the perplexing lack of concern, engagement or righteous indignation in Canada around issues such as freedom of information and the public’s right to know.”

Those concerns aside, in 2011, DemocracyWatch launched the Open Government Coalition. So far, the coalition is made up of three groups – not counting DemocracyWatch and an affiliated charity. Although founder Duff Conacher stated in an email he plans to expand it this fall.

In the meantime, the New Democrats and the Liberals have proposed laws and policies that would open up government. They should be applauded for doing so. And, if the past is a predictor of the future, they may even act on some of those proposals if they win power – just as the Conservatives did.

But eventually the expediency of secrecy seems to seduce every government, regardless of its political stripe. Which means a New Democrat or Liberal administration will likely become just as tight with information as the Conservatives – albeit, perhaps, with more of a velvet glove covering that clenched, iron fist.

Don’t believe me? Well, look no further than the United States where Democrat president Barack Obama swept into office promising an “unprecedented level of openness in Government.”

Five years later, an Associated Press analysis found that in 2013 his administration “more often than ever censored government files or outright denied access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.”

More recently, the agency also listed “eight ways the Obama administration is blocking information.”

Meanwhile, for his part New York Times reporter James Risen has called “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”

Just as neither the right nor the left has a monopoly on the truth, neither has a monopoly on secrecy.

As a result, it’s vital for Canadians to start paying better attention to our information rights so we can better safeguard them.

That’s why the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, the Canadian Association of Journalists, DeSmog Canada and IntegrityBC, are now encouraging Canadians tweet about threats to their right to know using the hashtag #cdnfoi.

Those threats include everything from backroom government meetings and frustrated freedom of information requests to inaccessible officials and nonexistent public records, whether they are at the federal, provincial or local level.

At present, the use of that hashtag isn’t widespread, making it more difficult for Canadians to know about such threats.

So, by just tagging stories about government secrecy with #cdnfoi, you can help your fellow citizens know about what they aren’t being allowed to know.

And you can encourage others to take up the fight by sharing these graphics promoting #cdnfoi – helping change Canada’s culture of secrecy in the process.