Ontario, New Brunswick and Harper up for top secrecy award

OTTAWA, May 10 /CNW/ - They muzzled scientists, hoarded reports and rewrote legislation to make it more difficult to get information.

The province of Ontario, New Brunswick's liquor control agency and the Harper government are among this year's nominees for the Canadian Association of Journalists' annual Code of Silence Award.

"For their commitment to secrecy, stonewalling and suppression, we salute them," said CAJ President Mary Agnes Welch. "This award has been around for more than a decade and this year's crop of dishonourable nominees has proven that governments just aren't getting it. Information belongs to citizens, not spin-doctors."

The winner will be announced at the CAJ's annual awards gala and national conference in Ottawa this weekend.

The nominees are:

  • Alcool NB Liquor for refusing a request by CBC New Brunswick for a report about altering the five-years-of-service requirement for pension and severance-package eligibility. At issue was a soft landing for the appointed head of Alcool NB Liquor, who was shuffled out by a new provincial government and wasn't eligible for a pension. Or was he? When the province's access to information commissioner recommended the documents be released to the CBC, Alcool NB Liquor lawyered up and refused. The report remains under wraps.
  • The Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services for intransigent secrecy around daycare inspection records. The Toronto Star waged a two-year battle under freedom of information legislation to obtain daycare inspection records in 2007 and found troubling details of negligence and mistreatment. The ministry vowed to make the records public on a government website. After four years of foot-dragging, the province started posting some inspection reports this month but not the details of serious incidents such as injuries. In a matter of vital public interest involving the most vulnerable people, the ministry epitomizes a bureaucratic commitment to secrecy.
  • The Ontario Ministry of Government Services for secrecy around civil servant Internet surfing habits. The Toronto Star fought for nearly a year under freedom of information legislation to obtain monthly provincial government reports on civil servant Internet surfing in order to determine the governments' handling of improper surfing, the scope of the problem and its impact on productivity. The ministry rejected the request outright, refusing to release any portion of the records. After the Star published a story on the secrecy around the reports, reporter Robert Cribb obtained copies from a whistleblower detailing a troubling monthly pattern of online abuses among the province's 60,000 bureaucrats. An appeal of the ministry's denial is currently underway.
  • The Ontario government for its proposal to undermine access to vital hospital information. With hospitals set to fall under the province's FOI legislation next year, the Liberal government is proposing a loophole allowing hospitals to exclude from release documents related to quality of patient care issues - the very documents of the highest public interest. The remarkable commitment to secrecy in the hospital sector became evident with the news that a prominent Toronto lawyer who represents hospitals advised his clients - in writing on his website - to consider "cleansing" records on patient care prior to the new FOI legislation coming into place in January.
  • Natural Resources Canada for refusing to let one of its senior scientists talk about research on the break-up of a prehistoric ice dam. NRCan geologist Scott Dallimore was the Canadian co-author of the study on the ice dam published last spring. He was told he had to get "media lines" cleared by his minister's office before responding to requests for interviews. It took a full week for Dallimore to get ministerial approval, by which time the study had been released and his international co-authors widely interviewed. The case was so egregious it resonated with editorial writers and was held up internationally as evidence of the Harper government's obsession with message control.
  • Prime Minister Stephen Harper for his continued vice-grip on the public's right to know. Whether he is muzzling scientists, limiting journalists to four questions a day on the campaign trail, refusing to release information to MPs or undermining the access to information process, the prime minister and his office are on the vanguard of government secrecy in Canada. Harper has been a frequent nominee and won the Code of Silence Award in 2008.

The 2011 Code of Silence Award will be handed out at the CAJ's gala award ceremony on Saturday, May 14 at the Sheraton Hotel in Ottawa. Registration of the conference is still open. Visit caj.ca to see the full schedule or to register.

The CAJ is Canada's largest national professional organization for journalists from all media, representing about 800 members across the country. The CAJ's primary roles are to provide high-quality professional development for its members and public-interest advocacy.

SOURCE Canadian Association of Journalists

For further information:

Mary Agnes Welch, CAJ President, Work: (204) 697-7590 or Cell: (204) 470-8862


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