Award-winning Toronto Star investigative journalist Rob Cribb called on the Canadian public to demand greater government transparency at a lecture at UBC’s Robson Square campus last week.
“The public must demand greater openness and transparency from public officials,” he said. “Without this, we remain in the dark.”
Cribb, who is also the Canwest visiting professor at the UBC School of Journalism, is responsible for groundbreaking investigative reports that pry open the bureaucratic vault of secrecy on key public safety issues – exposing problems with daycare, airline maintenance and restaurant regulations.
While journalists act on behalf of the public as a watchdog on government, Cribb argued that a culture of secrecy and silence at all levels of government has frustrated journalists’ attempts to find out the truth.
Information laws at both the federal and provincial levels establish the rights to public access to government-held documents, a 30-day deadline for response and an appeal procedure if access is denied and also detail limits to these rights.
But public records that should be easily attainable through freedom of information legislation are kept hidden through destroying records, delays and flat denials.
Even when a request is granted, Cribb said, bureaucrats assign exorbitant fees for accessing information. In one case Cribb relayed, the government told him it would cost $1200 to transfer data onto a disc.
Academic research, including one published by the Campaign for Open Government, shows that Canadian institutions are taking longer to process requests and are less likely to release information.
A black hole of information results when public bodies are not adequately covered by access to information legislation.
Some governmental bodies that are not held accountable to the public, because they are exempt from access legislation, include Airport Authorities, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, The Nuclear Waste Management Organization, The Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation, Foundation Genome Canada, Canadian Blood Services, NAV Canada, and others.
Cribb also reported that “more than half” of requests for court record documents are routinely denied. The greatest indictments against the public interest are committed through these information black holes.
When information is uncovered, it can have enormous public interest. Through his digging, Cribb found that the College of Physicians was dealing with 99 per cent of patient complaints and reports of malpractice in secret, and doctors with complaints filed against them were often given light reprimands, in private, with no transparency.
He said there are also “attempts to silence whistleblowers”, and “economic pressures to avoid delays overruling safety issues” that much of the public may be unaware of.
Cribb said that former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein had denied journalists access to public records, a “strategic way of undermining the public interest”, and that Stephen Harper’s staff attempt to manage news conferences by “picking which journalists get to ask questions.”
“We are dealing with the most hostile government in recent history,” he said of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s relationship with the Ottawa press corps.”
The chill on communication is achieved through gag orders on Ministers. Requests to speak to the media must be approved by the Prime Minister’s Office and information on “sensitive issues” must be approved by the PMO, which adds to the backlog of access to information requests.
In addition, requests from journalists are often flagged and automatically deemed sensitive, restricting debates surrounding important information from entering the public sphere.
Cribb is frustrated that this culture of secrecy is a “sleeper issue in Canadian society”.
He said journalists, acting on behalf of the public, are “dealing with…antiquated legislation and [a] cultural problem. The only way things change is through public pressure…but [it’s] rarely on the public agenda”, he said.
Cribb called for amendments to Freedom of Information legislation, judicial appreciation for journalists’ relationships with confidential sources, and adequate whistleblower protection.