Attention News Editors:

Revised - Health Canada wins 4th annual Code of Silence Award

    VANCOUVER, May 9 /CNW/ - The Canadian Association of Journalists has
awarded Health Canada its fourth annual Code of Silence Award, which
recognizes the most secretive government department in Canada.
    "Government officials everywhere hide vital information that they think
might embarrass them, their departments or their political leaders," CAJ
president Paul Schneidereit said in announcing the dubious prize. "This award
honours their efforts to shroud open government."
    "Our finalists have shown remarkable zeal in suppressing information,
from concealing vital data about dangerous drugs to snooping through a
reporter's bedroom on a witch hunt for whistleblowers."
    The winner was announced Saturday as part of the CAJ awards ceremony at
the Association's 26th national conference. The Code of Silence award - a
plaque featuring a padlock and chains - was accepted on behalf of the federal
health department, which did not send a representative to accept it.
    Over a period of more than five years, Health Canada denied any
meaningful access to a database of prescription drugs that could harm or even
kill Canadians. The department refused to release information on adverse drug
reactions in a format that would allow researchers to study the records
electronically in order to spot trends and identify which drugs are causing
problems. For more than five years, the department would only release the
information in a computer format that prevented deeper analysis. Meanwhile,
adverse drug reaction data like this is readily available in the U.S. In fact,
the Food and Drug Administration routinely makes such data available on its
website.
    The parliamentary all-party standing committee on health eventually
slammed the department for failing to effectively protect Canadians who take
prescription drugs. The committee said the manner in which drugs are tested
and approved is too secretive, in large part due to excessive concerns about
the commercial interests of the drug companies. Health Canada finally relented
more than five years after it was challenged.

    This year's other nominees were:

    -  The New Brunswick Department of Health and Wellness, for stonewalling
       for more than a year on freedom of information requests to make public
       two commissioned studies on health care resources. After a court
       appeal, an appeal to the ombudsman and a confidential draft of one
       report was leaked, the minister, Elvy Robichaud, still refused to make
       the two documents public, saying in reference to the entire
       population: "You don't need 700,000 people to do the planning." Only
       after a public outcry over his comments and a pending ombudsman's
       ruling did the minister finally release the two reports on future
       health planning.

    -  The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, for their efforts to stifle the use
       of confidential sources by journalists in Canada. After a prolonged
       court battle in which the RCMP sought to obtain materials sent to
       National Post investigative reporter Andrew McIntosh in the
       Shawinigate affair, the Ontario Superior Court ruled against the
       police, stating confidential sources were an indispensable means with
       which journalists inform the public in a democracy. The RCMP had
       sought the original documents in order to try to identify who had sent
       them to the National Post. The same day of the court ruling, the RCMP
       raided the home of Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O'Neill under the
       Security Information Act, seeking leaked secret documents related to
       the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen deported to Syria by U.S.
       authorities.

    -  The government of Alberta, for its handling of a freedom of
       information request involving a defamation suit against former
       provincial cabinet minister Stockwell Day. After spending nearly
       $800,000 defending Day in the lawsuit, a judge found the province had
       attempted to manipulate public opinion by selectively releasing
       documents that detailed the government's actions, and had been sought
       under the Freedom of Information Act. When The Globe and Mail and the
       opposition Liberals requested more documents, they were told they
       would each be charged an additional $60,000. Even after Justice
       Terrence McMahon of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench drastically
       lowered the fees and ordered the government to comply, the Alberta
       Department of Justice released mainly old newspaper clippings and
       other documents of little journalistic value.

    -  The city council of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, for refusing
       to open committee meetings to the media. Top courts in several
       provinces have ruled that such meetings should be open to the public,
       but the municipal council continues to deny reporters access to the
       city's committee sessions. The CBC is now fighting the secretive
       policy.

    Last year's winner was the Nova Scotia government for a year-long pattern
of secrecy, including instituting the highest fees in the country for access
to information requests. The result was a sharp decrease in the number of
requests under the Act. Prior winners also include the federal Department of
Justice for giving itself the power to override the Access to Information Act
and withhold any information relating to international relations, national
security or defence that it deems sensitive; and the Ontario Ministry of the
Environment for withholding information about the Walkerton water tragedy that
claimed seven lives and sickened thousands more following contamination of the
town's water system.
    The Canadian Association of Journalists is a professional organization
with 1,300 members across Canada. The CAJ's primary roles are public interest
advocacy work and high quality professional development for journalists.


For further information: Paul Schneidereit, CAJ president,           
(613) 290-2903; John Dickins, CAJ executive Director, (613) 290-2903

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