Suppressing free speech

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Thousands in this province can't speak out

In Saturday's Telegram, editor Russell Wangersky commented on how critically important it is for the provincial government to live up to its promise to develop whistleblower legislation.

Wangersky was remarking on a page one story in that day's paper, in which Peter Walsh revealed that teachers in this province are being effectively muzzled from saying anything critical of school boards.

Wangersky says that whistleblower legislation is "the kind of thing that is often promised in campaigns because of its attractiveness to the voting and paying public, but it's also something that is rarely delivered by actual sitting governments.

"Why? Because for governments, it's a case of making a stick for their own backs. If you legislate protection for people who speak out about government waste or improprieties, why, people might just go ahead and speak up."

You can click here to read the complete text of Wangersky's column.

It doesn't stop there. Last week, I received an email from someone I know and trust (but who needs to remain anonymous), which stated that health care workers are also prevented from "going public" with their concerns about the system. Here's the note I received:

I picked up on your point today about the comment from a CNA employee who couldn't "go public" for fear of being fired. Health care workers are in the same boat. I recently received a copy of Eastern Health's confidentiality agreement that all employees are required to sign. It states, in part, "All employees, external medical consultants, researchers, students and volunteers associated with [the health authority] are responsible for keeping all information (oral, written or computerized) accessed, handled or viewed in the course of one's work as it relates to patients, staff or any matter that pertains to the operation of the [authority] confidential. ... Any breach of confidentiality shall result in disciplinary action."

This effectively muzzles health professionals who may wish to advocate on behalf of themselves, their working conditions, patient safety etc., particularly nurses.

If we assume that most or all other departments and agencies of government have similar restrictions, then there are thousands of people in this province for whom freedom of speech has been curtailed.

There is a different but related angle to this issue. In order to bid on government work, all advertising or public relations agencies in this province must abide by an archaic and oppressive rule, which states that they must agree not to represent or advise any individual or organization that is also involved in advocacy work against the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, including any provincial Crown corporation or other agency of the provincial government.

There are probably not as many advertising agencies in this province as there are government departments (especially with our new bloated Cabinet), and presumably these agencies would all like a piece of the government action'. And if they all accept government work, what agencies are left to represent those who might oppose government?

Not many, if any at all. This, I submit, is another means of suppressing free speech and silencing voices of dissent.

The news media in this province are extremely fortunate in that they can expose political wrongdoing, ineptitude or just plain silliness, without fear of losing their jobs. In an environment where free speech is stifled for so many, it is imperative that media continue to be critical in their thinking and inquisitive in their reporting of this government.

Since I work in public relations, a point of disclosure is in order here. No, I do not accept and will not bid on government work. I very rarely work for clients who oppose government, but I prefer nonetheless to keep my options open. Most agencies in town have high overheads, and don't have this luxury which underlines my point.

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