Saturday, April 2, 2011

Increased Silence and Secrecy: Are we Really Prepared for This?

It would be difficult to pinpoint a single word to describe the Harper government, but for me one of the most important words is 'secrecy'.

They have held onto information with such an iron grip, that you can spot a Conservative at 100 yards, because of their glowing white knuckles. I don't think I need to tell you how important a free flow of information is to a healthy democracy.

So maybe a little chronology of how they have been able to completely alter the way a government accounts to the people. First off, remember that the Accountability Act was a sham.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz, advised the Civitas Society, the policy arm of the Harper government, that there were three things to focus on, that would lead to a majority: tax relief (courtesy of George Bush), accountability and hockey.

Because so long as they made those things the centre of their messaging, we would pay attention to little else. When I first heard that, I thought he had misread the Canadian people. Now I'm not so sure.

Shutting Down Our Access to Information. A Chronology

April 2006 - Time Magazine reports on Harper's secrecy: Controlling the Message "The capital's journalists, who view themselves as watchdogs against government abuse, expressed concerns about the Harper government."

Latraverse. "Canadians should be worried when they see the government trying to exert such an unprecedented level of control."

Peter Murdoch of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union says the new policy "smacks of totalitarianism."

Alasdair Roberts, a Syracuse University public-policy professor, asks, "How can the average Canadian make a judgment about whether their government is being well run if they don't have access to the information?"

October 2007 - In 2007, Tonda MacCharles in the Ottawa Bureau of the Toronto Star, unearthed secret plans for a special media centre, dubbed the "Shoe Store Project". At the time Harper's staff had been working quietly, to restore an old shoe store into a controlled environment for government messaging.

May 2008 - Bruce Campion-Smith writes a six part series on how tight the government's message control is. They also shut down an important database. I used that site all the time.

November 2009 - It was discovered that Harper now had his own team of taxpayer funded photographers travelling with him, to make sure that he was captured in the right light. The Globe asked: Is Stephen Harper going too far in trying to control his image?

November 2009 - We learn that this government is also completely controlling the messaging in Afghanistan. "Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office used a "6,000-mile screwdriver" to oversee the denial of reports of Afghan detainee abuse when the scandal first erupted in 2007, according to a former senior NATO public affairs official who was then based in Kabul. The former official, speaking on condition his name not be used, told the Toronto Star that Harper's office in Ottawa "scripted and fed" the precise wording NATO officials in Kabul used to repudiate allegations of abuse "at a time when it was privately and generally acknowledged in our office that the chances of good treatment at the hands of Afghan security forces were almost zero."It was highly unusual." And he claimed not to know?

December 2009 - Bruce Cheadle of the Canadian Press, revealed that "Taxpayers are being asked to pay an extra $1.7-million this fiscal year to help bolster Stephen Harper's communications support services – just as the Prime Minister's Office begins distributing government videos of Harper to the news media." The Harper government was now writing their own copy, taking their own photos, and creating their own video, for news stories.

May 2010 - Youths who participated in a question-and-answer session with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Monday say their questions were edited by the Prime Minister’s Office. Other youths had earlier explained that the questions were selected by Vision Internationale, a non-profit Christian group, and then edited by Harper’s office.

When Anna Fricker, a young ambassador for the group, discovered that her question on maternal health had been edited, she spoke out: Fricker was then interrupted by an organizer who would not identify herself except to say, "I’m supposed to be handling the media." "I would appreciate if you could just work with us so that we can keep this consistent message," she said. "I’m just supposed to keep this under control."
(Chronicle Herald, May 18, 2010)

And So it Continues

The Canadian Association of Journalists in an open letter to Canadian journalists, sounded the alarm over the secrecy and silence.
Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the flow of information out of Ottawa has 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.
Harper is now signalling that he will raise the price of access to information requests from $5.00 to $25.00, making it even more difficult to learn what is happening behind closed doors.

The RCMP is also investigating a 'Purple File', used to tuck away requests that could prove embarrassing to Harper and his disciples.

And on the campaign trail he continues to limit questions and forces the media to stand well back of him. Not off to a good start.

My fear, and no doubt the fear of others, is that if we give this government another mandate, we will be giving them permission to operate in secrecy. Stephen Harper will continue to shut out the press, and thereby the Canadian people, and his propaganda team will only put larger bolts on the door.

The transformation to the 'Harper Government', a government of one, that does as it pleases, will be complete.

Are we really prepared for this?

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