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Audit finds huge disparities in access to Freedom of Information

Canadian Newspaper Association News Release *********************** OTTAWA - Many Canadian police forces obstinately refuse to report on taser stun gun usage, despite an apology from RCMP Commissioner William Elliott last year for excessive secrecy,
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Canadian Newspaper Association
News Release

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OTTAWA - Many Canadian police forces obstinately refuse to report on taser stun gun usage, despite an apology from RCMP Commissioner William Elliott last year for excessive secrecy, and mounting public controversy surrounding the deaths of taser victims.

This is among the findings of a new audit by the Canadian Newspaper Association (CNA) of freedom of information regimes across Canada, released today. The annual exercise tests how readily officials disclose information that should be publicly available on request.

As in previous years, the CNA's 2008 audit finds that officials across Canada are disturbingly inconsistent in their compliance with laws that underwrite the public's right to know.

"Whether it be details of expenditures by municipalities, or federal policies on talking to the media, what you get and how fast you get it depends on where you are making the request," said Fred Vallance-Jones, the University of King's College journalism professor who conducted the audit in collaboration with the CNA.

"Information freely available from some government agencies was denied by others. And when it wasn't denied, prohibitive fee estimates often took it out of the reach of all but the wealthiest requesters," he said.

Police reporting on taser usage is a striking example. Officers who use tasers are required to file use-of-force reports, however some police forces demanded exorbitant fees for this information. Winnipeg demanded $4,500, the highest in Canada.

Regina, Saskatoon and Saint John police refused to provide any records, alleging that provincial freedom of information law didn't apply to them. On the other hand, Halifax, Fredericton, Calgary and Victoria police, and the Codiac RCMP released records at no cost. Hamilton Police claimed in an e-mail that Ontario law prohibited them from releasing use-of-force reports.

"The police must be held to account just like government or anyone who exercises power on the public's behalf," said David Gollob, CNA's Senior VP of Policy and Communications. "Canadians depend on newspapers to keep them informed and keep the system accountable. This is our watchdog mandate. But we can't do the job properly when authorities block information, or make it difficult or prohibitively costly to obtain."

The audit grades institutions based on the speed and completeness of disclosure. Grades range widely from an A- for the City of Saskatoon and Province of Saskatchewan, to outright failures in Moncton, Saint John and Quebec City. The CBC, with a D, received the worst grade of any of the federal institutions tested.

The complete study is available on www.cna-acj.ca.

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