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“Where secrecy or mystery begins, vice or roguery is not far off.”
So goes a quote widely attributed to Samuel Johnson, England’s prominent 18th-century man of letters.
A few centuries later, it’s still a meaningful line, a bumper sticker for journalists everywhere committed to shining light in dark corners.
The principles of openness and transparency underpin democratic ideals the world over. Where there is freedom, there are open courts, open government, transparent policing, corporate accountability, access to information and a healthy, independent news media serving as a check on power of all types.
It is easy in a country like Canada to take these principles for granted. Yet even here, journalists routinely encounter efforts to obstruct and withhold information from the public.
For example, many experts agree that our access to information regimes are deeply flawed and inadequate. Government responses to media inquiries are often reduced to unhelpful slogans and vague talking points (even after sometimes absurd levels of internal bureaucratic vetting). Access to court documents, charge sheets and exhibits can be an ordeal, requiring costly and time-consuming appeals. Publication bans are routinely imposed in ways that can stifle press freedom, as a number of news organizations argued recently before the Supreme Court of Canada.
And on three separate occasions in the past two years, the media have uncovered evidence of secret Canadian trials — cases tried and concluded without any details made public — a remarkable situation for a country where the principle of open courts is considered sacrosanct.
About those secret trials: The Supreme Court will hear an appeal from the media (including CBC/Radio-Canada) in December over a so-called phantom trial held in Quebec involving a police informant. Postmedia recently lost an appeal to learn more about a secret civil trial in British Columbia. And last month, the media were tipped off to a secret criminal trial in Ontario thanks to an unusual Court of Appeal ruling in which the crime, the conviction, the sentence, and the names of the offender, lawyers and even the judge were kept secret.
Note in all of the cases above the pivotal role the news media play in uncovering secrets and fighting for the public’s right to know. This work is an unheralded aspect of professional journalism that warrants more attention than it gets — especially at a time when news organizations are under financial duress and cutting back wherever they can.
Simply put, it costs substantial time and money to fight these fights in various courts and tribunals across Canada, and the willingness of news organizations to foot the costs of such battles on behalf of the public cannot be taken for granted.
As a public service media organization, CBC News takes its responsibility in this area seriously. In any given year, we proactively challenge dozens of secrecy orders — from publication bans and sealing orders to excessive redactions and the withholding of documents. We often form, lead or join broad media consortiums fighting for public access. Some recent examples:
This story about how the RCMP had investigated and recommended a charge against a Surrey Police Service officer before his death by suicide would never have seen the light of day had it not been for extraordinary efforts by CBC News to get access to sealed court records. The Crown refused to provide us with information on the case, while multiple court clerks said they could not help and refused to even provide a file number. Finally, after a hearing last month, a judge swiftly ordered redacted versions of the documents released, ruling that the officer’s estate and family privacy concerns were outweighed by the Canadian principle of court openness and transparency.
Last year, the Halifax Regional Police service refused to release any information about public complaints against its officers. This was part of a massive project in which CBC’s Atlantic investigative unit asked for the data through freedom of information requests to 24 police agencies across the region. CBC appealed the Halifax decision to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. Before a judge could hear the case, a lawyer representing the municipality acknowledged it had not done an adequate review of the records and agreed to a negotiated settlement with CBC. The information was eventually shared over the course of a year.
In late June, Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner ruled that the province’s Ministry of the Solicitor General must turn over to CBC News high-level information compiled by the Ontario Provincial Police about homicides involving intimate partners. (Police services in most other jurisdictions ultimately released similar data to us, with varying degrees of transparency.) The Ontario government fought the release of the information on grounds it would be an unjustified invasion of personal privacy. Rather than comply with the order, the ministry asked the commissioner to reconsider the decision. The commissioner has issued an interim stay of the order to consider the request.
In April, CBC News appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada to argue for access to the mandate letters that Ontario Premier Doug Ford issued to his ministers when he was first elected in 2018. The government, which argued the letters are protected by cabinet privilege, fought and lost at each level — though it remains to be seen how Canada’s highest court will rule.
CBC News is challenging a Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) response to our request for records related to the 1995 Indigenous protest at Ontario’s Ipperwash Provincial Park that led to the shooting death of protester Dudley George. In denying the request, CSIS refused to even acknowledge whether such historical records exist.
There is, of course, a place for secrecy — from sensitive matters of national security, statecraft and military intelligence, to publication bans that protect the identities of young offenders and victims of certain crimes, to the media’s own important work with confidential sources and whistleblowers, to name just a few examples.
But secrecy should always be the exception to the rule. When it’s misused or abused, CBC News will continue to be on the front lines fighting for your right to know more.