The article below is available to CNA/CCNA member newspapers for publication. If you have any questions please contact Canadian Association of Journalists president Mary Agnes Welch at 204-697-7590 or Hélène Buzetti of the parliamentary press gallery at 613-688-4011.
A few weeks ago, many journalists nodded knowingly at this Tweet by Canadian Press reporter Jennifer Ditchburn.
“My Friday giggle… a spokesperson who emails me "on background" and then says: I can't answer your question.”
It’s a bit of gallows humour about a problem that began as a minor annoyance for reporters working on Parliament Hill in Ottawaand has grown into a genuine and widespread threat to the public’s right to know.
Most Canadians are aware of the blacked-out Afghan detainee documents and the furor over MPs’ secret expenses. But the problem runs much deeper.
Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the flow of information out of Ottawahas slowed to a trickle. Cabinet ministers and civil servants are muzzled. Access to Information requests are stalled and stymied by political interference. Genuine transparency is replaced by slick propaganda and spin designed to manipulate public opinion.
The result is a citizenry with limited insight into the workings of their government and a diminished ability to hold it accountable. As journalists, we fear this will mean more government waste, more misuse of taxpayer dollars, more scandals Canadians won’t know about until it’s too late.
It’s been four years since Harper muzzled his cabinet ministers and forced reporters to put their names on a list during rare press conferences in hopes of being selected to ask the prime minster a question. It’s not uncommon for reporters to be blackballed, barred from posing questions on behalf of Canadians.
More recently, information control has reached new heights. Access to public events is now restricted. Photographers and videographers have been replaced by hand-out photos and footage shot by the prime minister’s press office and blitzed out to newsrooms across Canada. It’s getting tougher to find an independent eye recording history, a witness seeing things how they really happened — not how politicians wish they’d happened. Did cabinet ministers grimace while they tasted seal meat in the Arcticlast summer? Canadians will never know. Photographers were barred from the fake photo-op.
Those hand-out shots are, unfortunately, widely used by media outlets, often without the caveat that they are not real journalism.
In the end, that means Canadian only get a sanitized and staged version of history — not the real history.
Meanwhile, the quality of factual information provided to the public has declined steadily. Civil servants – scientists, doctors, regulators, auditors and policy experts, those who draft public policy and can explain it best to the population — cannot speak to the media. Instead, reporters have to deal with an armada of press officers who know very little or nothing at all about a reporter’s topic and who answer tough questions with vague talking points vetted by layers of political staff and delivered by email only.
In addition, the Access to Information system has been "totally obliterated” by delays and denials, according to a scathing report by the country’s information commissioner. Requests are met with months-long delays, needless censoring and petty political interference — the most cringe-worthy recent example involves a bureaucrat forced to make a mad dash to the mailroom to rescue a report on Canada’s real estate holdings after a senior political aide ordered the report “unreleased.”
Politicians should not get to decide what