Rezori: There's a war on secrecy, but who is going to win?

Information is the bread and butter of journalists, but even politicians are recognizing the hazards of cultivating secrecy, writes Azzo Rezori.
The Confederation Building is the seat of the Newfoundland and Labrador government. (CBC)

The other day I was listening to a panel discussion on CBC's Radio Noon about the ongoing review of Bill 29, that tap with which the provincial government has reduced the flow of public information to the public.

Former premier Clyde Wells is heading a review committee into Newfoundland and Labrador's access to information laws. (CBC)
The panellists were James McLeod, legislative reporter for the Telegram, and Kathryn Welbourn, publisher and editor of the Northeast Avalon Times.

McLeod described how his reporting of provincial affairs has been stymied; Welbourn how the poison is starting to trickle down and her reporting of municipal affairs is being affected as well.     

It's not surprising that journalists should be in the forefront of the growing campaign against government secrecy. Information is their bread and butter, government information their jam.

But even politicians are beginning to recognize that cultivating secrecy is not in their best interest when their own favourite buzzwords these days are "transparency" and "accountability."

The genie and the bottle

Hence the current review of Bill 29.

Still, if even a political star like U.S. president Barack Obama with his silver spirit and Nobel laureate mind can`t put the genie of government secrecy back in the bottle (and according to all accounts he hasn`t been able to despite repeated promises), there`s clearly something larger afoot than just mean-spirited control freaks taking over our democratic institutions.

I decided to go in search of whatever that is.

Four quotes stuck with me along the way.

  • "In almost every profession people rely on confidential communication to do their jobs." Hillary Clinton, Former U.S. secretary of state.

  • "Secrecy can be best preserved only when credibility is truly maintained." Potter Stewart, U.S. Supreme Court justice (1915-1985).

  • "It has been said that privacy is dead. Not so. It's secrecy that's dying. Openness will kill it." Jeff Jarvis, journalist.

  • "This is a war on secrecy ... it will be won of course." Kristinn Hrafnsson, WikiLeaks spokesperson.

The quotes frame a picture where some degree of government secrecy is necessary, where the right degree might even be considered desirable, where things have also been getting out of hand and some people have declared war on secrecy itself.

U.S. journalist Jeff Jarvis maintains that the thirst for information will ultimately prevail over the powers of secrecy. (The Associated Press)
A recent article by Time magazine on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gives a fascinating glimpse of the self-replicating dynamics of secrecy.

Back in 1995, the article recalls, U.S. president Bill Clinton issued an executive order restricting the authority to classify federal government information as top secret to only 20 officials. The order also allowed the select 20 to delegate their privilege to 1,336 others. 

Within two years of Clinton's original order, "derivative" authority to classify had been passed on to about two million government officials and another million industry contractors.

Like everything else that takes on a life of its own, secrecy likes to expand.

Powerful privilege

But rather than reading this as a cautionary tale about the evils of big government and creeping secretiveness, we might take heart.

Keeping secrets is against human nature. Three million people are more likely to spill at least some of the beans than a select few.

Having control over secrets is power. Receiving authority to create and manage secrets is powerful privilege. Three million people using, misusing, and downright abusing that privilege is a scary prospect.

On the other hand, keeping secrets is against human nature. Three million people are more likely to spill at least some of the beans than a select few. And in the current climate of secrecy phobia, spills, even small ones, can do a lot of political damage.

Which is exactly what those fighting the war against secrecy want.

Information technologies, meanwhile, have added entire new dimensions to the war. 

Openness and chatter

Secrecy practised with older technologies had concrete limitations. It was cumbersome to generate and expensive to manage. It also had more protection. It could be destroyed or locked away. Tracking it down required hands-on ingenuity. Copying it had to be done physically as well.

The internet, on the other hand, has created one big information bowel where concrete limitations no longer apply. Most promising, however, is its propensity to make things go viral.

Even Jeff Jarvis' prediction that openness will kill secrecy sounds overly romantic and old-fashioned.

The internet's poltergeist will take care of things. Openness gone viral will become meaningless chatter, but it won't matter, because secrecy gone viral will fare no better.

And once we've drowned in meaningless openness and secrecy, we'll have a better idea of whatever it is we need to know but don't know yet.

About the Author

Azzo Rezori


Azzo Rezori has been working with CBC News in Newfoundland and Labrador since 1987, and reports regularly for Here & Now and other broadcasts.


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