Friday, April 30, 2004

And the nominees are...

The Canadian Association of Journalists has released the list of nominees for its fourth annual Code of Silence Award recognizing the most secretive government agencies in Canada:
"Keeping timely, important information hidden from the public is often a thankless job, tirelessly performed by many government officials from coast to coast," said Paul Schneidereit, CAJ president. "This award shines a special light on their dedication. From hiding public health risks to silencing whistleblowers, our finalists have shown an abiding commitment to secrecy."

The list of finalists is based on nominations from journalists and the public.

The nominees are:

The New Brunswick Department of Health and Wellness, for stonewalling for more than a year on freedom of information requests to make public two commissioned studies on health care resources. After a court appeal, an appeal to the ombudsman and a confidential draft of one report was leaked, the minister, Elvy Robichaud, still refused to make the two documents public, saying, referring to the entire population, "you don't need 700,000 people to do the planning." Only after a public outcry over his comments and a pending ombudsman's ruling did the minister finally release the two reports on future health planning.

Health Canada, for fighting for five years to prevent journalists from obtaining its adverse drug reaction database, preventing public scrutiny of drugs that can kill. Recently, the parliamentary all-party standing committee on health slammed the federal department for failing to effectively protect Canadians who take prescription drugs. The committee said the manner in which drugs are tested and approved is too secretive, in large part due to excessive concerns about the commercial interests of the drug companies.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, for their efforts to stifle the use of confidential sources by journalists in Canada. After a prolonged court battle in which the RCMP sought to obtain materials sent to National Post investigative reporter Andrew McIntosh in the Shawinigate affair, in order to try to identify who had sent the documents, a Ontario Superior Court ruled against the police, stating confidential sources were an indispensable means with which journalists inform the public in a democracy. The day of the court ruling, the RCMP raided the home of Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O'Neill under the Security Information Act, in search of leaked secret documents related to the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen deported to Syria by U.S. authorities.

The government of Alberta, for its handling of a freedom of information request involving a defamation suit against former provincial cabinet minister Stockwell Day. After spending nearly $800,000 defending Day in the lawsuit, a judge found the province attempted to manipulate public opinion by selectively releasing documents on the government's actions sought under the Freedom of Information Act. When The Globe and Mail and the opposition Liberals requested
more documents, they were told they would each be charged an additional $60,000. Even after Justice Terrence McMahon of the Alberta Court of Queens Bench drastically lowered the fees and ordered the government to comply,
the Alberta Department of Justice released mainly old newspaper clippings and other documents of little journalistic value.

The city council of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, for refusing to open committee meetings to the media. Top courts in several provinces have ruled that such meetings should be open to the public, but the municipal council continues to deny reporters access to the city's committee sessions. The CBC is now fighting the secretive policy.

The winner will be announced at the CAJ's national conference in Vancouver, May 8.

Last year's winner was the Nova Scotia government for a year-long pattern of secrecy, including instituting the highest fees in the country for access to information requests. The result was a sharp decrease in the number of requests under the Act.

Prior winners also include the federal Department of Justice for giving itself the power to override the Access to Information Act and withhold any information relating to international relations, national security or defence it deems sensitive; and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment for withholding information about the Walkerton water tragedy that claimed seven lives and sickened thousands more following contamination of the town's water system.
Good luck to all the nominees!

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