Banning media coverage of ethics probes a bad idea, transparency groups say
Pro-transparency groups are panning the new federal ethics watchdog's suggestion that he should be able to prevent the media from reporting on his investigations.
In testimony at a House of Commons committee this week, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion said that for many Canadians an allegation against a public office holder is akin to a finding of wrongdoing.
Dion floated the idea of giving him authority to issue confidentiality orders to stop parliamentarians from talking about a complaint and to prevent media outlets from reporting on it.
Weakening transparency and keeping Canadians in the dark won't solve the problem Dion identifies, said Duncan Pike, co-director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.
"And certainly public confidence in the conflict-of-interest laws in the system that he administers and oversees would certainly not be enhanced by delay of information and a lack of transparency," Pike said. "Canadians have every right to learn about this information and to judge for themselves."
Limiting media coverage of ethics probes could have the unintended effect of shielding Dion's own office from scrutiny, he added.
"If any real move was made to bring these kind of powers that he suggests, we would very, very much oppose that."
In December, Dion's predecessor, Mary Dawson, found Prime Minister Justin Trudeau contravened four sections of the Conflict of Interest Act in relation to his vacation on a private island owned by the Aga Khan.
The case attracted widespread media attention before, during and after Dawson's ruling.
If Dion tries to limit media coverage of matters under investigation, "just about every free-expression group in the country will oppose it at every turn," predicted Nick Taylor-Vaisey, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.
Press freedom decisions should not be based on "whether or not there will be a positive or negative reaction" from the public, he said.
Duff Conacher, a founder of the group Democracy Watch, wondered if Dion could back up his assertion that publicity about an alleged ethical breach makes people think a politician is guilty.
"Where is the evidence of that? Some tweets from some extreme partisans?"
Democracy Watch is asking the Federal Court of Canada to overturn Dion's appointment, alleging the Liberal cabinet failed to consult opposition party leaders as required by the Parliament of Canada Act before naming him to the post.
Chantal Gagnon, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister's Office, had no comment Friday on Dion's remarks.