By ROBERT LIWANAG
Legal strategies and government policies that undermine the public’s right to know will be examined by journalists, media lawyers, Canada’s information commissioner and the country’s former chief statistician when they meet at Ryerson University on May 8.
The gathering – entitled “Flying Blind: The right to know, government obstruction and fixing access in Canada” – will feature four panel discussions. The first will examine the government’s failure to create information due to funding cuts for scientific research, the elimination of public surveys by agencies such as Statistics Canada and other decisions. Challenges related to access to information will also be explored, along with legal strategies and court publication bans that interfere with the dissemination of information. The day-long session will conclude with a wrap-up discussion of potential solutions to the problems.
“The whole conference is based on the understanding that a vibrant democracy requires an informed citizenry,” says James Turk, a distinguished visiting professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism and co-organizer of the conference. “So if you prevent the public from having a right to information or access to information, you really undermine the foundation of democracy.”
The conference is a partnership between Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre and the recently established Ryerson Centre for Free Expression, which Turk will lead.
According to the Right to Information (RTI) Rating, developed by the Centre for Law and Democracy and Access Info Europe, Canada is currently ranked 57th in terms of citizens’ access to information, behind countries such as the United States, Bulgaria and Mongolia. Canada placed 56th in the annual ratings last year.
Turk said three of the biggest problems Canada faces in terms of access to information is the federal government’s attempts to obstruct journalists from seeking documents, the chilling effect of mass surveillance and the lack of detailed electronic records in the Canadian courts.
“If there’s no electronic record, how do you know what to ask for?” said Turk. “It’s like going to the library without a catalogue and them saying, ‘Well, you can check out any book you want, but you’ve got to tell us the name of the book and where it is in our file for you to be able to get it.’”
In addition to Turk, the panelists include Jesse Brown, a freelance journalist and media critic; Rob Cribb, a Toronto Star investigative journalist and Ryerson journalism instructor; Maggie Xenopoulos, an associate professor of biology at Trent University; and CBC journalist Dean Beeby, whom Turk describes as having had “more experience using access to information legislation than any other reporter in the country.”
Ryerson journalism professor Lisa Taylor and April Lindgren, academic director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, will be among the moderators.
WHAT: “Flying Blind: The right to know, government obstruction and fixing access in Canada,” public conference at the Ryerson School of Journalism
WHEN: 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., May 8, 2015
WHERE: RCC204, Rogers Communication Centre, 80 Gould Street, Toronto
Click here for the event poster.