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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Newspaper association audit of information laws shows wide disparity

January 10, 2009
The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — Police forces in Canada continue to withhold key information from the public about how officers are using Taser stun guns, says a new report on freedom-of-information laws.

Police in Regina, Saskatoon and Saint John, N.B., refused to release any so-called use-of-force reports, which must be completed when officers draw their Tasers, says an audit commissioned by the Canadian Newspaper Association.

Winnipeg police agreed to release the information but at a cost of $4,500, and Hamilton police claimed that Ontario law prevented them from making such reports public.

Other city forces - in Halifax, Fredericton, Calgary and Victoria, for example - did provide the information, without charge.

The RCMP last year apologized for the excessive secrecy surrounding its own use-of-force Taser reports, which initially had key information removed when released to The Canadian Press and other news media.

Inconsistencies across Canada were a major finding of the association's annual audit of Canada's freedom-of-information laws, this one organized by Fred Vallance-Jones, a journalism professor at the University of King's College, in Halifax. It's the fourth such audit carried out by the daily newspaper group.

The exercise involved sending 219 requests to 22 municipal governments and their police services, 10 provinces and the Yukon and 11 federal departments and Crown corporations. The requests were made by students acting as ordinary citizens.

Other findings:

-Windsor, Ont., wanted to charge more than $103,000 to release information on city payments that some other municipalities provided at no cost.

-The CBC asked for an extra six months to provide a list of senior employees and their salary ranges.

-Saskatoon and the province of Saskatchewan got the highest marks, A-minus, while the vast majority of others audited got C or less, based on a grading system that took into account speed, completeness, fees and time extensions.

A newspaper association official said the withholding of Taser information was particularly disturbing, given the growing controversy about the use of the energy weapon in Canada.

"The police must be held to account, just like government or anyone who exercises power on the public's behalf," said David Gollob, senior vice-president of policy and communications.

"But we can't do the job properly when authorities block information, or make it difficult or prohibitively costly to obtain."

Gollob added that public accountability has never been more important as Ottawa and the provinces embark on unprecedented spending to help dig Canada out of a recession.

Canada's information commissioner said the audit's findings show that key institutions are failing in their responsibilities.

"Police forces are supposed to be examples of lawful compliance," said Robert Marleau. "The CBC, as a publicly funded media outlet, should be the standard bearer of freedom of information and perform accordingly when it is the subject of requests."

The CBC, which became subject to the federal Access to Information Act on Sept. 1, 2007, has been inundated since with requests for information and with formal complaints about inadequate responses.

Marleau singled out the federal act as "an outdated piece of legislation with a weak compliance model."

"Many of the provincial laws, while not perfect, are more effective and more comprehensive in their scope. Federally, we are slipping backwards."

Canada needs "more angry Canadians to write to their elected members and urge them to update and strengthen these laws."

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