“Code of Silence” nominees announced

OTTAWA, May 15 /CNW/ – The Canadian Association of Journalists is proud to present this year’s nominees for the not-so-coveted Code of Silence Award recognizing the most secretive governments in Canada.

“Keeping vital public information from the public’s attention isn’t easy,” said Paul Schneidereit, CAJ president. “It takes a deep and abiding commitment to secrecy. This award celebrates that rare combination of defensiveness, contempt, paranoia and skill required to hide public information by undermining information laws, throwing walls up around government-held data or denying the very existence of public records. This is our begrudging tip of the hat to the very best.”

Finalists were chosen from a list of nominations submitted by journalists and the public.

The finalists are:

1. The Department of Foreign Affairs for denying the existence of documents related to the treatment of Afghan detainees that were requested under federal Access to Information legislation. Even after complaints to the federal Information Commissioner, the department would only release a heavily excised version of a report to the Globe and Mail in which every reference to torture and abuse in Afghan prisons was blacked out. The federal Information Commissioner gave the Department of Foreign Affairs an “F” grade in his most recent annual report for failing to reply to 60 per cent of its access to information requests within the statutory deadlines, more than any other department audited last year.

2. The Immigration and Refugee Board for employing lengthy delays, misinformation, deceit and excessive fees to block Access to Information requests by journalist Roxana Olivera. In one case, the department claimed not to have any documents related to the granting of refugee status to Americans in Canada. Following a complaint to the Information Commissioner, the department confirmed it had conferred status upon four American citizens. The Information Commissioner also found “a serious deemed-refusal situation and lack of an up-to-date ATI support structure in the IRB’s current policies, procedures, and technology.”

3. The governments of Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick for being the only remaining provinces in Canada that lack freedom of information legislation covering municipalities. As a result, the public in both provinces do not have the legally-backed right to know what municipalities are doing with their tax dollars.

4. Transport Canada for doggedly fighting for four years to keep basic aviation safety data out of the hands of journalists and the public. Following a formal request for the data by the Hamilton Spectator in 2001, the department dug in its heels, at one point claiming that information about commercial aircraft incidents constituted the personal information of the pilots flying the planes. Only a legal challenge before the Federal Court finally persuaded Transport Canada to release the data last year. Transport Canada was also nominated for failing to complete a Canadian Press request from February of last year for the new minister’s briefing book on current issues and upcoming events.

5. The Ontario government for refusing to give the provincial ombudsman power to investigate hospitals. Ontario is the only Canadian province where hospitals aren’t subject to the scrutiny of an ombudsman. Despite repeated public demands for greater transparency around one of the most costly and essential public sectors in the country’s most populous province, Ontario hospitals remain outside the scope of both provincial freedom of information legislation and independent investigation.

The Code of Silence Award is handed out annually at the CAJ’s gala award banquet, which takes place during the association’s annual spring conference.

This year, the conference is being held in Toronto May 24-27 at the Hilton Hotel, 145 Richmond St. West, as part of the Global Investigative Journalism Conference.

For the first time in the seven-year history of the award, a winner will show up to collect the dubious prize at this year’s conference. Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant, honoured with last year’s Code of Silence Award for imposing the highest fees in the country for public access to court records, is scheduled to receive the plaque – featuring a large padlock hanging from a chain – during his address to delegates on Thursday, May 24, 11:30 a.m. (Media vs. The Courts: A Town Hall with Ontario’s Attorney General Michael Bryant). Nominees can include municipal, provincial and federal government departments as well as public agencies that work in the public interest with public money.

The Canadian Association of Journalists is a professional organization with more than 1,500 members across Canada. The CAJ’s primary roles are public interest advocacy work and quality professional development for journalists.

For further information: Paul Schneidereit, CAJ president, (902) 426-1124; Robert Cribb, CAJ past-president, (416) 579-0289; John Dickins, CAJ executive director, (613) 526-8061, Cell (613) 868-5442