A Balancing Act: freedom of expression and protection from harmful content

by Charlotte Ridsdale

I started my internship with the Centre for Law and Democracy remotely, living the work-from-home life in Montreal. This was harder than I initially anticipated – relying solely on self-motivation to complete my independent tasks alone in my apartment was challenging! I was grateful for friends to co-work with at Thomson house and café’s. I was also grateful to be able to drive up to Halifax to complete the second half of my internship at the end of June.

A change of scenery: lobster traps near Peggy’s Cove.

CLD is often commissioned by civil society groups to conduct legal research for various educational materials they produce. My first research tasks were for a project with Media Defence, an organization that provides legal help to journalists and independent media globally. CLD was adapting some training materials for digital rights through African national and regional human rights courts with examples from South and Southeast Asia. It was very interesting to examine the ways in which various Asian countries address digital rights, journalistic freedom and defamation on new media platforms. I enjoyed compiling quotes on the importance of freedom of expression and the media.

This one aptly describes some of CLD’s motivations behind their work on media freedom and right to information;

The media, be it electronic or print media, is  generally called the fourth pillar of democracy. The media, in all its forms, whether electronic or print, discharges a very onerous duty of keeping the people knowledgeable and informed. The impact of media is far-reaching as it reaches not only the people physically but also influences them mentally. It creates opinions, broadcasts different points of view, brings to the fore wrongs and lapses of the Government and all other governing bodies and is an important tool in restraining corruption and other ill-effects of society. The media ensures that the individual actively participates in the decision-making process. The right to information is fundamental in encouraging the individual to be a part of the governing process.”

From Sanjoy Narayan, Editor-in-Chief, Hindustan Times and Others v. High Court of Allahabad 2011 [para 5]

One of the best parts about interning with CLD is the variety of issues that I get to think about. Beyond media freedom, I’ve also been working away at a report on digital regulation around the world. I’m comparing the way democracies have chosen to regulate online platforms to mitigate the negative impacts of disinformation, hate speech and other harmful content. Different countries have decided to approach these issues from different angles. The USA’s s.230 provides “good Samaritan” protections from liability for online platforms (note the exceptions to these protections in the 2018 FOSTA-SESTA bills to curb online sex work) which contrasts the sweeping regulatory mechanisms imposed by the EU’s Digital Services Act.

Canada and Australia fall somewhere in between, with the proposed approach to address online harms in Canada and Australia’s Online Safety Act. Australia’s laws were quickly enacted in response to the Christchurch mass shooting of 2019, which was live-streamed on Facebook. Without getting too deep into the weeds, the law contains provisions requiring online platforms to remove violent and offensive content within 24 hours of being notified, and harsh financial penalties for failing to remove certain content.

Although I believe that online platforms have a responsibility to protect their users from hateful, violent and otherwise harmful content, state action like the Australian bill may create issues of over-censoring. It makes me question whether states and big tech companies should be in a position to decide what kinds of content individuals are able to access. For example, the Australian law’s classification scheme may require online platforms to remove sex workers’ profiles from their sites which blocks access to essential tools allowing them to work safely.

Shouldn’t adults be able to choose what kinds of online content they are exposed to? Why are states in a position to decide? Perhaps these are unintended consequences of well-meaning and even necessary government regulation to mitigate hate and violence. However, all of the laws that I’ve looked at are blurring the boundaries of free speech, resulting in various degrees of alarm from civil society. It is, indeed, a difficult balancing act.

On being an “international” intern in my home country:

While the majority of the other interns in McGill’s international human rights internship program this year spent their summers in different countries, I completed my internship in the faraway land of Halifax, Nova Scotia. I had never actually been to eastern Canada, but, unsurprisingly, the totality of my culture shock consisted of having to adapt to drivers who actually paid attention to and respected pedestrians (in sharp contrast to the attitudes of Montreal drivers).

Prior to starting at the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), I hadn’t considered what it would mean to complete an “international” placement in my own home country. While many of the other interns were immersed directly in the country that their organization primary worked in, I spent my twelve weeks sampling the laws and policies of countries from various regions of the world, without setting foot in any of them. Of course, this did not make my placement (or the placements of other students who were also placed within Canada) any less “international.” Organizations can be “international” for the purposes of this type of experience, in multiple ways – by virtue of their location, or by virtue of the scope of their work (although, of course, these categories are far from discrete). But, as I learned, analyzing legal frameworks from afar is a unique endeavour – one that comes with distinct challenges.

I spent most of my time at CLD creating country-specific legal mapping documents, which laid out the legislative frameworks surrounding various rights in those countries and highlighted potential areas of concern. These documents were meant to be primarily focused on the laws and official policies themselves, not the practices on the ground. However, as I discussed in my previous blog, separating these two from each other was nearly impossible in many cases – it would be disingenuous to commend a country’s law on an issue if the law is never abided by in practice. Because of this, it was necessary in all cases to seek out at least basic information about how the relevant laws were applied. This is where the challenges of being across the world from many of the applicable countries arose.

In order to obtain information about practices on the ground, I scoured news websites and reports from other human rights organizations, and the legal officer at CLD spoke with members of partner organizations located in the relevant countries. This allowed us to identify issues that were not readily apparent in the laws themselves and provided, in many cases, a much more complete depiction of the legal environment. However, we were still limited by the realities of our distance.

With respect to news and secondary sources, an obvious, but problematic inverse relationship hindered my search – the more that freedom of speech is restricted in a country, the less secondary information is available about this restriction. In addition, information about certain smaller countries was nearly impossible to find. This was the case, for example, with the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville). Information on the reality of civic space in the Congo is drowned out in search engines by information about the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Even after wading through these results, very little information appeared. Unsurprisingly, this was also the case for Niger – results were by-and-large related instead to Nigeria. Of course, the comparative size of different countries was not the only cause of this difficulty. In many cases, the availability (or lack thereof) of information was clearly tied to political realities – countries that receive more foreign aid also tend to be the focus of more research and monitoring.

While direct communication with individuals located in the applicable countries mitigated these challenges in many ways, distance still created obstacles to obtaining accurate information. When the person on the other line seemed closed off, it was hard to determine why. Was it an issue with the fluidity of the translator? Was the technology just lagging? Was it just a matter of the individual’s personality? Or was it due to self-censorship resulting from a combination of the threat of surveillance and harsh content-related speech laws?

Of course, labelling these contextual factors as “challenges” to international work seems flippant in some ways. Being physically distant from the countries I researched and wrote about meant that I did not have to worry that my work would put my safety at risk – a reality for human rights workers in many of the countries I looked at. As my coworkers were also all located in Halifax (except during their many international trips), it also meant that I wasn’t at risk of jeopardizing their safety. While my work was exclusively used on an internal basis, I would not realistically have had this bubble of protection if I was located in one of many other places, where government surveillance of digital communications is a reality and human rights defenders are often targeted.

In this way, my placement at CLD showed me what it means to work for an internationally-oriented organization; it highlighted to me both the privilege and the limitations inherent in this type of work. This will be something I consider in future employment in order to properly situate the role that I (along with my organization) am meant to play. I will ask myself, what privilege do I have by virtue of my position (both spatially and functionally)? What limits does this position place on my ability to obtain complete information? What does this mean for my work?

Statutory Analysis and the Necessity of Data:

By Emma Brown

In my first year Constitutional Law course, my professor went on a small tangent during one class about the importance of data. We were discussing equality rights, and she was explaining “adverse effects discrimination” – imploring us to think divergently by considering that facially neutral policies and laws may have differential impacts on certain groups. Without data, she elaborated, these adverse effects are not always clear.

In May, when I finally had time to read for pleasure, rather than for school, I devoured Caroline Criado Perez’s book, “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.” The book outlines countless ways that the gender data gap unintentionally leads to policies and designs that put women disproportionately at risk. As I read this book, my mind was pulled back to that Constitutional Law lecture. Little did I know that my summer placement would build on this pattern, highlighting in my mind the importance of understanding laws within the context of their background and enforcement.

Since June 10th, I have been working at the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD). The organization, which works to “promote, protect and develop those human rights which serve as the foundation for or underpin democracy,”[1] is best known for its data – in particular, the Global RTI (right to information) Rating. The rating system consists of 61 Indicators, which each evaluate a different component of “RTI” laws. The fact that the organization created this type of quantitative evaluation is not surprising, since the Executive Director studied and taught mathematics before obtaining an L.L.B. and pursuing a career in human rights.

While the organization is best known for this rating system, however, the vast majority of the organization’s time is spent on other projects, which tend to be focused more on qualitative analysis of laws from around the world. In particular, my work has mostly involved statutory analysis of international laws related to civic space. The analysis I conduct is then used for a project CLD is currently working on with a major international NGO. While many of my tasks are meant to be merely focused on the evaluation of laws, and not policy, I’ve quickly learned how difficult it is to conduct this type of analysis sincerely without looking at the reality on the ground.  In many cases, law and practice – those two perennial counterparts – are unfortunately juxtaposed.

The easiest laws to evaluate are the ones that are clearly deficient. For example, the Penal Codes in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) contain provisions that criminalize those who damage the reputation of heads of state.[2] In Rwanda, this provision exists despite the fact that general defamation has been decriminalized. In the DRC, the Code contains a general defamation offence,[3] but insulting the head of state (prohibited under the press law) carries a heavier penalty.[4]  In both cases, the provisions violate international standards, which establish that public officials must withstand a greater degree of criticism than others.[5] Issues like these – where laws clearly violate international standards, or, as is common in the area of access to information, simply don’t exist[6] – are easy to spot.

It becomes much more difficult when laws appear acceptable on their face, but a quick google search shows that practices in the applicable country do not align with the official laws or policies. Here, data becomes crucial in order to understand why this misalignment occurs. Often times, it’s a mere issue of enforcement – when state actors ignore the laws, they become irrelevant. For example, while Montenegro’s public assemblies law largely reflects international standards – containing a notification (rather than approval) system, creating an appeal process for refusals of assemblies, and recognizing (albeit in a vague way) spontaneous assemblies[7] – police frequently misinform organizers of assemblies on their rights and obligations.[8] As a result, the rights conferred by the law are largely meaningless. However, in many other scenarios, the divergence between law and practice are caused by much deeper issues.

Often times, the failure to operate in accordance with the official laws has to do with the reason for the laws’ existence in the first place. An example of this issue can be seen in Serbia’s Law on Personal Data Protection (adopted in 2018).[9] The motivation for passing this law was (at least in large part) to support Serbia’s goal of EU membership – not, as one might assume, to create the best data protection scheme in the Serbian context. Because of this, the law virtually mirrors the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) but fails to take into account Serbia’s history in this area.[10] In general, there is a lack of privacy culture in the country, meaning that most individuals and organizations are not aware of privacy rights.[11] In terms of legislative history, the previous 2010 Law on Electronic Communications required telecommunication providers to keep records of the source, destination, and timing of all electronic communications for one year, for potential government use.[12] Until 2013, this data could be collected without a warrant,[13] and even after this provision was found unconstitutional, rates of unauthorized access were unknown, as technical systems created by the previous regulatory framework continued to exist.[14] Because of this, the 2018 law may appear acceptable on its face, but when considered in relation to Serbia’s history, its flaws are more crucial than they may first appear. While it is too soon to fully examine the law’s impact, it has been criticized as being overly complicated – which is problematic in light of the lack of privacy culture – and as failing to address digital privacy issues – which is concerning considering the existence of current avenues for unauthorized surveillance.[15]

The impacts of a country’s background on the effectiveness of a particular law is, of course, very context specific, but has been relevant in each of the nine countries I’ve looked at through my placement. In many cases, the motivations behind legislation are rooted in international political goals, but in others, the motivations are rooted in different, but equally relevant concerns: In Rwanda, media laws have to be considered in light of the media’s role in the genocide.[16] In Bosnia & Herzegovina, policies regarding government consultation with civil society have to be understood in light of the fact that NGOs were largely created after the war to deal with service needs, not civil society ones.[17]

As a law student who previously completed an undergraduate degree in “legal studies,” I’ve long been aware that laws cannot be fully assessed in isolation. However, my time at CLD has greatly deepened this understanding, as I’ve seen how many different ways practices can deviate from laws. Issues can, of course, can be rooted in a law’s structural flaws, but can also arise when the law appears perfectly adequate but fails to take into account the context it is meant to operate within. Data, then, seems crucial for anyone hoping to affect positive change through statutory analysis, as recommendations for future improvement should ideally be sensitive to the causes of the deficiencies, rather than just the technical inadequacies of the applicable law – virtually identical provisions can be appropriate in one country, and entirely lacking in another. Much like in the context of equality issues, where policies that appear neutral can have adverse effects on different populations, and in the context of design, where the gender data gap can put women at disproportionate risk, sincere analysis of human rights law requires data regarding the motivation for the creation of each law and the societal context that it operates within.

In this way, my placement at CLD has not only made me familiar with international human rights standards related to civic space and given me the opportunity to engage with laws from a variety of different legal systems; it has also given me a new skepticism that will undoubtedly impact how I consider the laws I study through the remainder of my degree (and later, engage with through the course of my career).



[1] Centre for Law and Democracy, “About Us,” https://www.law-democracy.org/live/about-us/what-we-do/.

[2] Art 236 of Law No 68/2018 of 30/08/2018 (Rwanda); Article 77 of Law No 96-001 of 22 June 1996 (DRC); Article 251, 252.

[3] Art 74 of Decree of 30 January 1940 on the Penal Code (DRC).

[4] Article 77 of Law No 96-001 of 22 June 1996.

[5] General Comment No. 34, CCPR/C/GC/34 at para 38.

[6] For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Madagascar recognize the right to information in their constitutions but have no implementing legislation.

[7] Law on Public Assemblies and Public Performances, Official Gazette of Montenegro No. 52/16.

[8] ECNL: Monitoring the Right to Free Assembly (2017): (http://ecnl.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/ECNL-FoPA-Montenegro-2017.pdf), pg. 4.

[9] Law on Personal Data Protection (Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia. No 87/2018).

[10] BD2P, “Serbia: The Law on Personal Data Protection,” December 2018, online: https://www.bd2p.com/upload/files/1545208079-eef11.pdf at pg. 3.

[11] EDRi, “Will Serbia Adjust its Data Protection Framework to GDPR,” 2019, online: https://edri.org/will-serbia-adjust-its-data-protection-framework-to-gdpr/.

[12] Art 128-129 of the Law on Electronic Communications (Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia, No 44/10).

[13] Global Freedom of Expression (Colombia University), Summary of Constitutional Court decision (Official Gazette RS, no. 60/13), online: https://globalfreedomofexpression.columbia.edu/cases/serb-law-on-electronic-communications-articles-128-1-128-5-129-4-2013/.

[14] Global Information Society Watch, “Serbia,” 2014, online: https://www.giswatch.org/en/country-report/communications-surveillance/serbia.

[15] EDRi, “Will Serbia Adjust its Data Protection Framework to GDPR,” 2019, online: https://edri.org/will-serbia-adjust-its-data-protection-framework-to-gdpr/.

[16] See Allan Thompson, The Media and the Rwanda Genocide (London: Pluto Press, 2007).

[17] See discussion in Arnaud Kurze, “Time for Change: Aid, NGOs, and Transitional Justice in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” (2017) 1:5 Transitional Justice Review.

A tale of two ideals

By Roxanne Caron

My work this summer at the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD) focused on issues of access to information, government transparency and freedom of speech. A significant component of what this NGO does is the evaluation of access to information policies put out by countries. This right to information (RTI) rating, with a possible total of 150 points, evaluates many different aspects of government transparency and the concrete implementation of a citizen’s right to access information, such as the existence and strength of an oversight body, the possibility to appeal a decision, clearly defined and not overly broad exceptions to this access, clear, identified and easy procedures to request information and obtain a reply in a swift manner, and so on.

In relation to this, one of my tasks this summer was helping in the evaluation of a forthcoming policy from the Inter-American Development Bank aimed at its private sector arm, IDB Invest. I quickly learned that a lot of reading between the lines was involved with evaluating these policies, and that the devil truly was in the details. Even with the very clear assessment grid from the RTI rating, my first draft overlooked many important issues, and the comments that came back to me made me realize it is ill-advised to consider most of the criteria as black and white, and to look for nuances and crucial details in how they are worded, framed and implemented. A longer second look at the policy showed gaps that affected the document’s potential to truly enhance access to information. A good thing however was that IDB Invest itself invited this type of assessment, as it opened a 6 months public consultation period on the recently written draft. The final and official document should then see the light of day somewhere in late 2018 or early 2019, hopefully reflecting the comments CLD and other organizations and experts formulated on the draft.

As mentioned, a key aspect is the implementation of these policies themselves. Even if the policy is perfect on paper, there needs to be a further assessment on how it translates on a day-to-day basis in the country or organization where it stems from. This idea of implementation is at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals that are following the Millennium Development Goals that completed its cycle in 2015. Assessing the effective implementation of policies proves to be a lot more difficult than assessing the policies as a written document. How to make sure prescribe delays are respected? That the appeal mechanism described is indeed accessible for citizens making requests? Fact-checking this kind of details is a time-consuming endeavor, that requires a lot more knowledge about the country or organization’s operation. Furthermore, providing access to information engages costs, and may sometimes pit other values or principles against it.

This fact has never been clearer to me than when the topic of access to information in Canada came up around some excellent craft beer in the North End neighborhood of Halifax. In Canada, there is a large backlog of documents that could be made freely available online, but are not since they ought to be translated (in most cases from English to French), and publishing unilingual documents would go against other federal government principles. This results in most documents being available only on a per request basis, which significantly hinders the free flow of information. For some around the table, the way to go was evident: documents should be released, and if not in the two languages, at least in the language they were originally written – this is what would promote greater access to information, after all. For others, though, it was a more complex issue. As I said before, most documents are originally written in English.

Publishing original documents regardless of initial redaction language would without a doubt end up giving a lot more weight and space to English information on federal websites. This sat uneasy for some around the table, myself included. At the time however, I couldn’t really explain in great detail why this was the case. I understood and still think of access to information as a crucial human right to ensure a free and equal civic society. But something about this “better than nothing” stance did not work for me. Furthermore, as the daughter of two unilingual francophones, I also knew that the argument uttered by anglophone colleagues that “everyone spoke some basic English, even in Quebec”, was far from the truth. After a few weeks, I came across a short op-ed in La Presse, Le français n’est pas une langue secondaire, which put in better words the concerns I had with by-passing language requirements to strengthen access to information. The text commented on the poor quality of the French documents available on the Canadian website for tendering. The Commissaire aux langues officielles found that not only some documents were published in English only, the majority of documents that were published in French and English were not translated in a consistent and quality manner. This creates a situation which is far from the “two official languages” concept found in federal statutes.

This op-ed worded better than I could why I was uneasy with the argument that publishing documents in English was better than nothing. I am not saying that it should absolutely not be done, but forgetting the issue of language inequality in the context of access to information does not serve, in the end, the very same ideals this right aims to defend. This post has been a long time in the making, simply because I continued thinking I would clarify my stance on this eventually. This has not been the case. I am still thorn between two ideals that each need to be upheld, in a scenario where imposition of one over the other necessarily brings out some cost. The best I can hope for, however, is that the debate around this issue continue to bring those two ideals together and acknowledge the potential setbacks of each option. Implementation of access to information policies is a multidimensional endeavour, and the example of the translation problematic in Canada is a good example of the challenges each country may face when furthering access to information. I can only thank Halifax’s wonderful craft breweries for providing the perfect background for animated, and necessary, discussions on these issues.

the oppression tree

Miller AilsaBy Ailsa Miller

Early in the summer at CLD, I volunteered to write an open letter to the Minister of Public Works and Procurement regarding an “interim prohibitory order” (IPO) she had issued against James Sears, the editor-in-chief of a particularly abhorrent publication called “Your Ward News.” I would suggest you look up the publication (TW: anti-Semitism, racism misogyny, general white supremacy), but I don’t know if you want that in your search history.

The IPO, issued in 2016 and under review in 2017, prevents Sears from receiving or posting any mail. It was issued pursuant to s. 43(1) of the Canada Post Corporation Act, which allows the Minister to step in when they have reasonable grounds to believe that someone is using the postal service to commit a criminal offence. In Sears’ case, Minister Judy Foote’s office stated that it had reasonable grounds to believe that Sears was committing the criminal offences of defamatory libel and wilfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group under ss. 300 and 319(2) respectively of the Criminal Code. The Minister did not identify the specific articles or comments which she and her office considered to be libellous or to constitute hate speech.

When I first read about the IPO, my gut response was “Good. You go, Judy.”

I mean Sears is (in my unprofessional and unclinical opinion) a narcissist. And if not, he is definitely racist and definitely harbours some deeply entrenched and alarming beliefs about male superiority.

In addition to being the “editor-in-chief” of a publication I don’t even want to legitimize by characterizing as rag, he considers himself a professional pickup artist. He goes by the name “Dimitri the Lover” and runs “seduction workshops” through the “Toronto Real Men” club, which he refers to “the world’s FIRST and ONLY Seduction Lair” (emphasis in original).

James is also a former physician, but was ultimately stripped of his medical licence in 1992 after a long history of sexual impropriety towards female patients. He, in fact, pled guilty to two counts of sexual assault, though those convictions were overturned and an acquittal entered on appeal.

Needless to say, I was not super comfortable with the idea of writing a letter in support of this dude. So why did I volunteer to write it? Because it’s good practice. By virtue of the nature of their role, lawyers are bound to represent interests that are not their own and argue the law even when they don’t agree with it. This is particularly true of defenders of civil liberties. I’m sure Sukanya Pillay, Executive Director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, has no particular desire to be associated with the views of James Sears, but she has spoken up on his behalf nonetheless. As a student particularly interested in criminal law, I figured I’d better get used to navigating these situations.

It was a great learning opportunity. I became familiar with the arguments commonly used in support of “free speech”. One argument that came up time and again was that “people don’t have a right not to be offended”. I have a hard time with this one. Such an argument denies that there are real issues and rights at stake. Further, this argument too often betrays the privilege of the speaker and their failure to understand the self-sustaining character of systems of oppression. The dissemination of prejudicial speech is harmful not because it’s offensive, but because it legitimizes and reinforces the systems of oppression at the root of social inequality and discrimination.

I recently participated in an anti-oppression workshop in which the facilitators analogized various systems of oppression to a tree. The objective of the exercise was to impress upon participants the complexity and rootedness of these systems. I believe (or suspect) that the exercise was inspired by ‘The Tree of Patriarchy’ metaphor, which appeared in sociologist Allan G Johnson “The Gender Knot”. In our adaptation, the leaves of the tree represented discrete moments of discrimination – manifestations of prejudice. The branches were the beliefs and values that underlie these moments and which are in turn supported by institutions, represented by the trunk. Far more than just words, hateful or discriminatory speech is an expression of the values and ideas reflected in our institutions. Ultimately, systems of oppression are rooted in deeply entrenched normative theories and principles about human nature and the operation of society. In the same way that a tree is fed by both its roots and leaves, systems of oppression are self-sustaining

But what happens when we strip away the branches – when we censor harmful expression? Would it just create a “PC culture” – as the facilitator referred to it – or would it have an impact in creating a more just society?

…sounds like a term paper.

A Kindness Is Never Wasted

Miller AilsaBy Ailsa Miller

I had a feeling I would jibe with Halifax. I’m an extrovert. I get it from my dad. My family jokes that they can’t send either of us to the grocery store without supervision because we will inevitably see someone we know, or maybe meet someone new, and come back one hour later with no milk.

Camping at Polly’s Cove. Carrots, contemplation, and oopsy we ruined an engagement photo shoot.

But here, where the pace of life is slower, I have an outlet for my chattiness. People here are extremely friendly. I have yet to meet someone from Atlantic Canada who defies this stereotype.

To illustrate, the other day while out shopping I spent a solid 15 minutes chatting with a store clerk about her work as a photographer and her travel plans. We struck up this conversation because she mistook me for a client of hers—someone she’d taken wedding photographs for—when I walked in the door. Apparently, I have a Haligonian doppelgänger named… Chastity. I’m sure that as the city grows, things will change. But at least for now, it’s pretty perfect.

What’s more, Nova Scotia is beautiful. I say this even in spite of my bias in favour of mountains. Last week, my friend took me camping for an evening at Polly’s Cove, right on the ocean side. We set up camp in a natural alcove at the base of a massive granite boulder. After a quick—and I mean extremely fast—dip in the ocean, we scrambled up some boulders to watch the sunset over the lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove then returned to our campsite to watch the full moon rise over the ocean. We sat for over an hour leaning against the granite watching and listening to the waves crash against rocks in the moonlight while fireflies flickered in the brush below us. It was enchanting. I don’t want to believe that I only have a week left in this place.

The Bay of Fundy. I was awestruck. The tide was coming in and I STILL winded myself running to the water. Never mind the deceased seal in the background.

We’ll just ignore the fact that this is my first blog post.

But since it is my first one, let me introduce you to the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD) and what they do. The CLD is a small legal advocacy organisation that was started by Toby Mendel, a mathematician and an international expert in the right to information (RTI). He started the organisation after a long stint as Director of the law program at Article 19, an organisation that has operated in this area for years. He hired his current Senior Legal Advisor, Mike, right out of law school. They worked out of Toby’s kitchen for the first few years.

RTI refers to the right of individuals to access information from their governments and intergovernmental organisations. In other words, he’s an expert in access to information (ATI) law. RTI is often spoken about in terms of “freedom of information” and has been long been recognized as a pillar of democracy. As early as 1946, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 59(1) stating:

Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and … the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the UN is consecrated.[1]

Toby is pretty adamant, however, about the using the “right” language (pun intended). Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the “right to seek, receive and impart information”[2] as a constituent element of freedom of expression. But “Freedom of information” has only recently evolved beyond an aspiration and into a fully-fledged human right recognised by regional human rights systems,[3] international instruments,[4] and international jurisprudence.[5] In 1990, only 13 countries had ATI laws in place. That number has since increased seven-fold.

The CLD is perhaps most well known for the RTI rating they maintain (http://www.rti-rating.org/) but they also do a significant amount of direct advocacy. Both Toby and Mike are constantly jetting around the world, meeting with government officials and training bureaucrats who apply RTI laws, among other things. While they work primarily in the MENA region, Toby was recently involved in the re-draft of Sweden’s RTI legislation.

Though somewhat counterintuitive, strong democracies are often the most complacent about RTI. The quality of a country’s RTI legislation is not a direct indication of how transparent its government is. But a lack of adequate protections creates a situation ripe for abuse. It’s important that we don’t take the strength of our institutions for granted. Canada is a good example. We were one of the earliest to enact RTI legislation and were somewhat of a leader in this area. But we have failed to our laws up to date and in line with international best practices. Until this summer, the Access to Information Act had been the subject of only minor amendments. And it shows. Our system is notoriously slow and responses are often mostly or partially censored. The situation was so bad that in 2015 Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault referred to the Act as a “shield against transparency” rather than a mechanism for government accountability.[6]

Access to information is not a particularly sexy area of human rights work. It’s essentially a fight for basic institutional frameworks and bureaucratic efficiency. But I can’t overemphasize how important it is. Transparency is the core of democracy and at the heart of transparency is the right of the public to obtain and impart information about its government. Freedom of the Press, a hallmark of a free and democratic society, depends on strong protections for the right to information. The media are the most frequent users of ATI legislation. Secrecy and delays impact newsgathering and their ability to report on matters of public interest and to do so in a timely manner.

I am in admiration of Toby and Mike. They are tireless and dedicated; they devote an immense amount of energy to CLD’s work. And they never stop to question whether or not it’s worth it. This is what human rights work looks like – or at least it’s a version of it. It’s not always glamorous. You’ll write countless grant and project proposals to convince people that your work is worth supporting. You might feel distant, disconnected at times from the issues which are the subject of your work. Maybe, if you’re established in the field, you’ll get “on the ground,” so to speak, and get to meet with government officials and company executives to lobby for change; be invited to Parliamentary committee meetings to comment on incoming legislation; or even be asked to draft legislation. But working “on the ground” might mean months away from your family and friends.

Inevitably, however, you’ll feel sometimes like it’s all for nothing. Other times, you’ll feel like you’re making concessions or playing political games just to try and get things done. It might make you a bit cynical; you have to be a bit of an idealist, or what my partner calls a “grumpy idealist,” to keep going.

I think a lot of advocacy work can be compared to loosening the cap of a very tightly sealed jar. The first person to try to open it will give it everything they’ve got, but nothing will appear to have changed. It might feel just as impossible for the next person. But when someone finally gets the cap off, everyone can claim having loosened it for them! Mostly, though, everyone is just happy it’s open.

Forgive the basic analogy, but it’s one everyone can relate to. Also, I am the least creative. Ask anyone who’s ever seen me try to do art.

My experience at CLD has reaffirmed for me that there are a number of ways to contribute to our world. You don’t have to be a powerful person or big organisation to have a significant impact. What CLD lacks in size, they make up for in spirit and being smart about how and where they employ their resources. They are results oriented. They chose projects based on where they can have the greatest impact. They do a lot of work in the background. And I think there is a lot that is honourable in that.

I wear a pendant around my neck every day that symbolizes Aesop’s fable of the mouse and the lion. For those who are not familiar with the story, one day a lion is sleeping in the forest (…?). A mouse, who is basically a nobody in the animal kingdom, runs across the lion’s nose and wakes him from his slumber. The lion is not happy, so his obvious response is to kill the mouse. “Wait!” the mouse cries, “Spare me and I’ll repay you!” The lion scoffs but does the mouse a solid and lets him live. Later, the lion becomes trapped in a trophy hunter’s net. Unable to free himself, he lets out a loud roar. The mouse, hearing the lion’s roar, comes to his aid. Luckily, he is able to chew the rope loose and set the mighty lion free.

The moral of the story is that a kindness is never wasted, and even if you’re small you can still help another. Like the lion’s decision to spare the mouse’s life, or the energy the first person expended trying to open the jar, the impact of our actions is not always obvious in the short term. But that is no reason to become complacent or not to try. And just because you’re a nobody in the grand scheme of the universe doesn’t mean that your actions won’t be felt. I carry the message of the mouse and the lion with me every day. It’s a reminder to be humble, to serve others, and to remember that your work is never wasted.

[1] UN Resolution 59(1), 14 December 1946 as cited in Toby Mendel, Freedom of Information: A Comparative Legal Survey, (Paris: UNESCO, 2008), at 8.

[2] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 19 December 1966, 999 UNTS 171 art 19 (entered into 23 March 1976, accession by Canada 19 May 1976) [ICCPR].

[3] Toby Mendel, Freedom of Information: A Comparative Legal Survey, (Paris: UNESCO, 2008), at 9 (in particular, the Organisation of American States, Council of Europe and the African Union).

[4] Ibid at 14 (in Claude Reyes and Others v. Chile, on 19 September 2006, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held that “in respect of the facts of the present case, the Court considers that article 13 of the Convention, in guaranteeing expressly the rights to ‘seek’ and ‘receive’ ‘information’, protects the right of every person to request access to the information under the control of the State.” See endnote 57).

[5] Toby Mendel, Freedom of Information: A Comparative Legal Survey, (Paris: UNESCO, 2008), at 17 (the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) was the first legally binding instrument to establish “clear standards on the right to information.”)

[6] “Egregious Delays on Access to Information Must Stop”, The Star (28 June 2015), online: <https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2015/06/28/egregious-delays-on-access-to-information-requests-must-stop-editorial.html>

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