Behind the thick, black line

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James McLeod
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Opposition says censoring radio transcript is Bill 29 in action

Keith Hutchings

A Newfoundland and Labrador blogger received a transcript of a CBC radio interview from the provincial government recently - with part of transcript blacked out by government censors.

Keith Hutchings, minister responsible for access to information, said that bureaucrats are just following the law as it's written, but opposition politicians say that overzealous redactions are par for the course after the government passed Bill 29 earlier this year, and rewrote access-to-information laws.

"The average person wouldn't have the means, and a lot wouldn't have the time to jump through all the hoops," Liberal MHA Eddie Joyce said. "It's almost impossible for a private citizen in this province now to put in a freedom of information (request). Almost impossible."

The radio transcript, posted by blogger Wallace McLean online, has sections blacked out by an Access to Information and Protection of Privacy (ATIPP) co-ordinator in the provincial government.

"The content was broadcast on the open airwaves," McLean wrote. "Then it was written down. Then it was blacked out."

Hutchings said government bureaucrats don't decide whether something is in the public domain when they examine whether to release it. They consider whether the legislation says it should be released, and that's it.

"It's a separate activity that's going on in the public domain," he said. "Our concern is that we're following the ATIPP legislation."

Ostensibly, the redactions in McLean's case were about protection of privacy of an individual. The interview dealt with former College of the North Atlantic employee Peter McBreairty, who's been in an ongoing fight over alleged wrongful dismissal.

Some of the quotes that were blacked out - but can be publicly reviewed since the podcast of the interview is on the CBC website - don't seem to involve privacy issues.

"As recently as February of this year, of 2010, I've had records revealed that got closer to why I was dismissed and, in fact, who dismissed me from the college.

"It is only now that I've been able to get those records," McBreairty said during the interview, but government bureaucrats blacked it out in the transcript.

In the past few months, opposition politicians have consistently complained about access requests where government bureaucrats came back with pages and pages with nothing but blacked out text on them.

NDP MHA George Murphy called them "access to toner" requests, since all they get back in many cases is pages covered in black printer toner.

"It's just another barrier that's used by government. It's a government based on paranoia," he said. "It's in some cases a waste of time. The government has thrown up a wall here."

jmcleod@thetelegram.com Twitter: TelegramJames

Organizations: CBC

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • DW Responder
    January 07, 2013 - 16:39

    To DW: If you check out the blogger’s website (labradore.blogspot.ca) you will see that this document was returned as part of a much-larger access request. You’re making the assumption that the applicant and the blogger are one and the same. You are also making the assumption that the applicant asked for “CBC documents” but he went to the wrong source. You seem to be too wrapped up in the McBreairty issue to see the point of the blog and the Telegram article. I think the point of the article was to point out the irony of an individual doing a public interview about ACCESS TO INFORMATION, only to have the transcript of that public interview be redacted pursuant to an access to information request. If you read the blog, you’ll also learn that this request was sent to the Department of Justice; an unlikely source to go for “CBC documents” but a pretty good source for information about the ATIPPA review (the interview topic). According to the blogger, a separate request was made to the OIPC for the CBC transcript and it was released in unredacted form. I wonder who released the record with proper redactions, the Department of Justice or the OIPC? I’m real concerned about your assertion that you “worked with the ATIPP for a long time” and I wonder if you ever read the purpose of the ATIPPA? “3. (1) The purposes of this Act are to make public bodies more accountable to the public and to protect personal privacy by (a) giving the public a right of access to records; (b) giving individuals a right of access to, and a right to request correction of, personal information about themselves; …” and there is more. I do agree with you on one point. I would love to see a story reporting how much has been spent in time, money and resources in trying to make public bodies more accountable.

  • DW
    January 06, 2013 - 04:21

    Access to toner is classic, but there are some serious problems with this assessment of the case. I worked with ATIPP legislation for a long time, so I can tell you that the reviewing officers and other individuals involved are doing their jobs properly in this case. The reviewing officers, government Ministers and the ATIPP Commissioner are accountable and liable under the ATIPP Act. Unlawful disclosure of personal information is an offence, and the fact that the blogger then posted the documents onto his own website proves the need for careful redaction. Furthermore, from a research perspective, the blogger went to the wrong source, and that's his fault, not anyone else's. If he wants CBC documents, the he should have gone to the CBC. They have the authority to release, and probably have signed documents from the interviewer allowing this. Is this simple incompetence? Or a self fulfilling prophecy of "government secrecy"...get your head out of the blogosphere... Next point - "Ostensibly, the redactions in McLean's case were about protection of privacy of an individual. The interview dealt with former College of the North Atlantic employee Peter McBreairty, who's been in an ongoing fight over alleged wrongful dismissal." This guy was fired from CONA. He knows CONA's rationale for why he was terminated, but he refuses to accept this. Now he makes dozens of ATIPP requests for his own personal information, which he is entitled to under the Act, looking for the smoking gun proving his wrongful dismissal, which he has been unable to find after many years of searching. If you want to develop the story further, ask CONA and the Gov NL how much time, effort and resources his requests cost us every year, and turn your mind to the question of what to do when requests become unreasonable.

  • JT
    January 05, 2013 - 08:55

    The only way to stop the actions of this government is at the polls. Lets hope that people remember at election time.

  • Pierre Neary
    January 05, 2013 - 07:32

    "Access to toner" request. Classic.