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Politicians, the media and gag orders

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This week, we got updates on two important bids by the federal government to muzzle its employees.

In the first instance, plans to subject MPs' staff to an indefinite gag order have apparently been ditched. Last March, MPs' staffers were told they would be subject to a lifetime ban on discussing any of the details of their time working in Ottawa.

The gag order was only one of several new guidelines for staffers, which included new rules on conflict of interest and disclosing gifts and payments by third party.

The new policy was drafted by the Board of Internal Economy, the Orwellian-named committee that oversees the administration of the House of Commons. Like all parliamentary committees, it's dominated by members of the governing Conservatives. However, it's important to note that all members of the committee, which included two New Democrats and a Liberal, apparently approved the new rules.

The lifetime gag has now been reduced to a five-year prohibition on the discussion of any intimate details of the inner workings of any MP's office. (Interestingly, the scandal-plagued Senate is not affected by this policy.)

However, that is not the only effort being made to muzzle government employees. This month, we also learned that employees in 12 government divisions are now subject to lifetime gag orders under the Security of Information Act. These include the justice department and Privy Council Office.

This time, Ottawa claims the lifetime bans are needed to safeguard "special operational information," an awkward term that is supposed to describe anything important to national security.

Although some citizens may find comfort in a government that is trying to curb information leaks, there is grave concern that this is less about sensitive national security information, and more about limiting what we know or hope to learn about our government.

On many levels, the gag orders are hardly necessary. The aforementioned Security of Information Act outlines both the kinds of information that must be kept secret and the penalties for violating the law, which include very lengthy prison terms. In the last two years alone, several people have been prosecuted under this law and punished severely.

National security laws, in general, focus on the types of information that should be kept confidential; gag orders are bids to intimidate large groups of people from discussing any information publicly. Even if that information is not sensitive or confidential in any legal definition.

The joke here is that gag orders are practically ineffective and legally tenuous.

In these days of blind Twitter and email accounts, it's still possible for someone to leak sensitive information to the media. (It's instructive that an image of the original gag order drafted last March was sent to the CBC using an anonymous email account.)

There are also legal limits to gag orders. You cannot, for example, contractually prevent someone from revealing evidence of a criminal act. A gag order could never be used to refuse to comply with a subpoena or other court order to release information.

Lastly, gag orders seem to run pretty much against the grain of any kind of whistleblower legislation. Perhaps the rise in the gag-order activity in Ottawa explains why our whistleblower laws suck.

Gag orders are clumsy, intellectually weak efforts to hide the inner workings of government. When any government spends so much of its time devising and implementing new gag orders, doesn't it make you wonder what everyone is trying to hide?

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.

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