by Adriana Christianson
Journalists are responsible for exposing the truth about issues of public concern, but getting facts on the record can be tough. This is why reporters depend on freedom of information and privacy laws to uphold every citizen's right to know.
Freedom of information and privacy laws may not have the drama of meeting un-named sources in dark parkades but they do help investigative journalists get the facts on the record – the public record.
Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner Gary Dickson refers to this legislation as a “sunshine law” because it keeps government and public bodies accountable for what they do in between elections.
Dickson was at the University of Regina on Sept. 28 to kick off Right to Know Week, which is happening across Canada. Monday marked Right to Know Day, celebrated worldwide to promote every citizen’s right to access information.
“This is a very important tool in modern democracy but it’s only useful if we use it,” Dickson said.
Janet Keeping, president of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, was invited to Regina and Saskatoon as a keynote speaker on “The Struggle Against Corruption: the Rule of Law and ‘Right to Know.” Through her work to reverse government corruption in Russia, she brings an international perspective to the issue of freedom of information.
In an interview before her presentation, Keeping said an important mandate of Right to Know Week is to urge vigilance in keeping governments transparent. She said the media has an incredibly important role to play in upholding the public’s right to know by continuing to press for information.
However, accessing information is not as simple as it used to be under Saskatchewan laws, according to investigative journalist Dan Zakreski.
Zakreski, a reporter for CBC news in Saskatoon, has often used access to information requests for research on in-depth stories. On average he says he puts in a few requests each month, but this part of his job has become more complicated in recent years.
He is now told to submit official requests to clarify facts that were once only a telephone call away. For example, to see reports by Workplace Health and Safety on fatalities at construction sites in Saskatchewan, he had to take the time to submit a request form, rather than getting the results of the investigations immediately.
“If somebody dies, then people should know what happened. It shouldn’t be accountable to corporate or political interests,” Zakreski said. “Somebody has to speak for people; if you don’t do that then nothing changes.”
Asked to speculate why restrictions on accessing information seem tighter now, Zakreski said it gives government officials control over the release of information.
“Provincial regulations require any third party information to be run by the people it involves before it gets released,” he said. “You just get a more filtered release of information.”
Access requests for business and crime-oriented documents involving third parties are often denied, citing privacy conditions. Dickson explained that certain controls are also meant to protect personal privacy of individuals.
“There are limited and specific reasons why government can refuse to give you or me a particular document,” he said.
Citing Transparency International, Keeping said that Canada compares well with other countries ranking ninth out of 200 in terms of overall government transparency. Even so, citizens are responsible for upholding this standard, she said.
“We can’t be complacent… we don’t really see how fragile our freedoms are,” she said.
Zakreski mirrored this opinion for journalists.
“It’s important that we have a clear understanding of what goes on in our society, who is running things and how things work.”