Privacy, Secrecy, and Democracy

The news today was interesting for those who believe in the value of whistleblowers and who are concerned by a trend among some governments to exclude the public from their business. Yesterday the National Post won a court ruling protecting from the RCMP documents the newspaper obtained from a confidential source. And yesterday the RCMP raided the home and office of Juliet O’Neill, the reporter for the Ottawa Citizen who broke the Maher Arar case. Their objective? Confidential documents she may have obtained from a government source–a whistleblower.

Once the RCMP finishes combing through the documents they seized from Ms. O’Neill, they may charge her under the new Security of Information Act, and may be able to find the source of the information, as well. This Act, part of the passel of “home security” legislation that appeared after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, makes disclosure of certain information a serious criminal offence not only for government staff doing the disclosing (an offence already under Official Secrets legislation), but for the person receiving the information. The legislation has its critics (the head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association uses the calls the Act, in a delightful turn of rancour, “dangerously and fatuously overbroad”) but it seems unlikely that it will be changed any time soon.

This new law, and the O’Neill case, may put a chill on the “brown envelope” network on which journalists rely. It puts whistleblowers at risk. It also reflects an increasing concern of the public with privacy and government with secrecy.

What does it all mean for land reform in BC? Nothing directly, but its fatuous overbroadness is yet another disturbing sign about the attitude of governments toward openness. After the “freedom of information” reforms of the past two decades, governments in Canada seem to be taking a turn toward secrecy. Since our province’s Freedom of Information & Protection of Privacy Act became law during the NDP’s reign in the 1990s, the NDP and now Liberal governments have resented the intrusion into their affairs. There are signs now–most notably Ken Dobell’s speech at a conference in September–that the government may be trying to curb the meaning of the legislation. This mood of secrecy cannot be good for those on the outside of the government’s processes–such as, for example, those who want to see community-based sustainable land reform in BC.

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