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Information Commissioner to investigate muzzling of federal scientists

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has agreed to investigate "the systematic efforts by the Government of Canada to obstruct the right of the media -- and through them, the Canadian public -- to timely access to government scientists."

The decision came in a letter addressed to Tyler Sommers of Democracy Watch. In a news release, Democracy Watch stated:

Today, Democracy Watch expressed its pleasure with the fact that the Information Commissioner has officially confirmed they will conduct a full investigation into the muzzling of federal government scientists by the federal Conservative government.

The complaint was filed by Democracy Watch in collaboration with the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Clinic over new federal government policies that attempt to muzzle scientists.

... In response to the many loopholes that exist in the access to information laws across Canada, and the lack of enforcement and lack of audits to ensure people are following the law in some jurisdictions, and, Democracy Watch and the Open Government Coalition call for the following 8 key changes:

1. any type of record created by any entity that receives significant funding from or is connected to the government, or was created by the government and fulfills public interest functions, should be automatically covered by access to information laws and systems (as in the United Kingdom);

2. all exemptions under access to information law should be discretionary, and limited by a proof of harm test and a public interest override (as in B.C. and Alberta);

3. the access to information law and system should require every entity covered (as in the United Kingdom, U.S., Australia and New Zealand): to create detailed records for all decisions and actions and factual and policy research; to routinely disclose records that are required to be disclosed; to assign responsibility to individuals for the creation and maintenance of each record, and; to maintain each record so that it remains easily accessible;

4. the access to information law and system should allow anyone who does factual or policy research for the government to speak to the media and publicly about the topic;

5. severe penalties should be created for not creating records, for not maintaining records properly, and for unjustifiable delays in responses to requests;

6. the Information Commissioner should be given explicit powers under the access to information: to order the release of a record (as in the United Kingdom, Ontario, B.C. and Quebec); to penalize violators of the law, and; to require systemic changes in government departments to improve compliance (as in the United Kingdom);

7. funding to the access to information system and enforcement should be increased to solve backlog problems instead of increasing administrative barriers, and fees for access should be lower overall and standardized, and;

8. Parliament must be required to review the ATI Act every 5 years to ensure that problem areas are corrected.

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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