Freedom of information laws aren’t just a legal mechanism that allows us to obtain internal records from government bodies. It’s also an instrument of social and political equality. At least, that’s how the Canadian Bar Association British Columbia Branch saw it in the late seventies, prior to the introduction of the federal Access to Information Act. In a brief prepared for the branch, its select committee on freedom of information observed:
“Presently, Canadians do not have a legal right to information possessed by government. Government releases information if and when it decides to. There appears to be an unwritten rule that an applicant for information must establish a satisfactory (in the government’s opinion) ‘need to know’ the information. The more prestigious or powerful the applicant, the stronger the presumption of its prima facie case of a ‘need to know.”1Select Committee on Freedom of Information, Report to the Provincial Council of the British Columbia Branch of the Canadian Bar Association (Vancouver, BC: British Columbia Branch of the Canadian Bar Association, 1977).
Sadly, the prestigious and powerful in Canada still often seem to have more access to information than those who are not. When I was an investigative journalist in British Columbia, I was always struck by how much more willing government officials were to share information with lobbyists than they were with reporters – including what was discussed during caucus and even cabinet meetings. This, despite the fact lobbyists represent private interests while reporters are supposed to represent the public interest. And maybe that’s a point those of us who are freedom of information advocates should be making more often than we do?
|↑1||Select Committee on Freedom of Information, Report to the Provincial Council of the British Columbia Branch of the Canadian Bar Association (Vancouver, BC: British Columbia Branch of the Canadian Bar Association, 1977).|
So true, Sean. Which is why the basic definitions of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association from 1991 include the following statement:
Information rights provide individuals with a much-needed counterbalance to the far greater access to and control of information enjoyed by governments and other powerful organizations. Information rights improve our democracy by reducing this imbalance of power in a society that is increasingly dominated by the uses and abuses of information.