CJFE supports watchdog's recommendations for access to information reform in Ontario

TORONTO, June 19, 2014 /CNW/ - Ominous surveillance policies and routine denial of access to government-held information are among the most important emerging political issues in Canada.

In this context, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) warmly welcomes the call by outgoing Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian for sweeping changes to the province's freedom-of-information laws.

Cavoukian's final annual report amounts to a direct challenge to newly re-elected Premier Kathleen Wynne, said Peter Jacobsen, Chair of CJFE's Canadian Issues Committee. CJFE calls on the provincial government to:

  • use its new legislative majority to strengthen access to public records, on which free expression and effective democracy depend;
  • make it an offence, with tough consequences, to destroy public records such as emails between public servants; and
  • protect Ontarians from the chilling effects of government surveillance, which diminish free expression rights when left unchecked.

"Ann Cavoukian has capped her years of service with a resounding call for better access to provincial and municipal records," Jacobsen said. "Now it's up to Wynne and her government to make it easier for people to find out what their governments are doing and hold them to account."

Cavoukian, ending her third term as Commissioner, also called on all Canadians to demand better answers from Ottawa about the extent of electronic surveillance by federal agencies.

Many of her suggestions underscore the grave weaknesses that CJFE has highlighted in its annual Review of Free Expression in Canada. CJFE believes true free expression depends on broad access to information and knowledge that is collected and developed at public expense, as well as freedom from chill-inducing surveillance.

Noting last year's unanimous call by federal, provincial and territorial commissioners for updating of privacy and access laws, Cavoukian said Ontario's 20-year-old freedom-of-information (FOI) regime urgently needs review and reform.

Among her recommendations:

  • Require public officials to keep an accurate record of their activities and make it an offence to destroy or alter records that might be subject to FOI laws. (Her office uncovered widespread deletion of e-mails relating to the controversial cancellation of gas-fired electricity plants.)
  • Require governments to routinely disclose public contracts instead of routinely withholding them, which triggers expensive FOI applications and appeals.
  • Expand the coverage of FOI laws to include municipal councillors' constituency records as well as their work on official council business.

Cavoukian took aim at the growing penchant of government officials to attempt to justify withholding information about current events from the news media and the public by citing privacy legislation. Too often this amounts to a "convenient diversion for inaction," she said. She also renewed her call for an independent agency to supervise and review government access to Canadians' personal digital information.

Pointing to U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about the global reach of government surveillance, Cavoukian said: "We all face significant risks associated with unchecked state power. I ask every Canadian to keep the pressure on our leaders for some answers."

CJFE will respond to Cavoukian's challenge by redoubling its efforts to broaden Canadians' right of access to information collected by the governments they elect, and work to stop unwarranted snooping by agencies such as the Communications Security Establishment Canada.

"Ann Cavoukian is one of Canada's most energetic promoters of access to information and protection of privacy," said Jacobsen. "We're determined to push for the reforms she suggests, and confront other challenges to Canadians' freedom of expression wherever they arise."

About CJFE
CJFE monitors, defends and reports on free expression and access to information in Canada and abroad. Rooted in the field of journalism, we promote a free media as essential to a fair and open society. CJFE boldly champions the free expression rights of all people, and encourages and supports individuals and groups in the protection of their own and others' free expression rights. cjfe.org

SOURCE Canadian Journalists for Free Expression

For further information: and to request interviews, please contact: Tom Henheffer, Executive Director, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), thenheffer@cjfe.org, 416-515-9622 x.226