Freedom of information advocate

MRU journalism professor fights for citizens’ right to know

Photo of Sean Holman, associate professor of journalism at Mount Royal University.

Sean Holman is an associate professor in journalism who advocates for freedom of information and government transparency. Photo courtesy Laura Balanko-Dickson.

Growing up, Sean Holman, associate professor of journalism at Mount Royal University and gadfly to secretive governments across Canada was used to having his questions answered and information shared ― because of his mom and dad.

“When I was growing up, my parents always explained to me why we were going places or doing certain things,” Holman says. “So I got used to the idea of knowing. When I entered grade school, I found my teachers didn't behave the same way. When I started reporting on provincial politics in British Columbia, I found that our elected representatives were similarly secretive. That's anathema to democracy, but it was also anathema to the way I was raised. So you can blame my parents for me becoming a freedom of information advocate.”

Holman, who is regularly quoted by the media in stories dealing with freedom of information and government transparency, appeared before the House of Commons government operations committee June 19. There, he represented the Canadian COVID-19 Accountability Group of transparency experts that is urging Ottawa to legally require the proactive disclosure of certain types of federal records within 15 days of them being prepared, including health and safety inspection reports and government contracts. The group also wants to see whistleblowers who “witness pandemic-related wrongdoing” in the public service be afforded better legal protections, including through the creation of federal and provincial COVID-19 ombudspersons.

According to a report by the Canadian Press, Holman stressed to the committee that “the need for information accelerates” during an emergency because Canadians “want to make the best possible decisions to keep themselves safe” and make sure governments and corporations are doing the same.

“We recognize that such reforms, which should include financial protection for whistleblowers, will take time, and that’s why we’re calling on the government to publicly declare that it will protect anyone who reports public- or private-sector wrongdoing related to the crisis.”

Holman, who was the founding editor of the pioneering British Columbia-based online investigative political news service Public Eye, a syndicated columnist, a legislative reporter for 24 Hours and the Vancouver Sun, and a weekly talk show host on CFAX 1070, cites numerous documented instances of governments across Canada refusing to share vital information about the pandemic with the public, including Health Canada refusing to provide Maclean’s magazine with historical data about confirmed COVID-19 cases. Federal officials, he says, also refused to respond to questions about how many ventilators and critical care beds Canada might need during the pandemic.

“That secrecy is a problem because democracy hinges on the availability of information. It is assumed we will use such information to make better decisions about the world around us ― whether it’s in the voting booth or the checkout line ― thereby controlling public and private institutions.”

The COVID-19 Accountability Group is composed of former whistleblowers and prominent accountability experts from the fields of academia, law, policing and journalism. They include representatives from organizations that have been at the forefront of fighting for whistleblower rights.

"Canadians are being kept in the dark about everything from how much money is being spent to fight the pandemic to basic data about where the disease is spreading," says Ian Bron, an Ottawa-based accountability advocate and former whistleblower who coordinated the Canadian COVID-19 Accountability Group's effort. "We know that when governments and corporations operate without public scrutiny, the potential for negligence, fraud, and misinformation dramatically increases. And, during a pandemic, that puts lives and scarce dollars at risk."

The group’s recommendations, which are included in a 22-page whitepaper, were made as part of an international legal hackathon supported by the Financial Times in London to develop solutions to problems created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Canadians tend to pat themselves on the back when it comes to governance compared to the U.S., but in this case, it is Canada that could learn from its southern neighbour.

“Canada is a much more closed society than the United States is,” Holman says. “Federal officials in Canada refused to say how many Canadian Armed Forces members have contracted COVID-19, citing operational security reasons. But that information is readily provided in the United States, despite the much greater threats America faces. Our political system, in the form of cabinet government, is even built around the notion of secrecy – something that would be intolerable in the United States.”

Holman talks to his students about how Canadian government secrecy makes the job of journalists harder here than it is in the U.S. Journalists without access to information are forced to rely on what governments and corporations voluntarily tell them. That leads to less useful and engaging stories. “So I try to equip my students with the critical thinking skills and investigative reporting techniques that can allow them to circumvent that secrecy.”

Sally Haney, new chair of the MRU journalism department, praises the work Holman has done and points out how vital access and transparency is for journalists.

“Sean’s contribution to student learning is especially important given ever-increasing threats to truth and justice. He helps student journalists unearth information that institutions and governments work very hard at keeping under wraps,” Haney says. “His work hinges on the fact that just societies can only be so when citizens are provided fairly unfettered access to information. This access, increasingly under threat, is a cornerstone of healthy democracies.”

Holman concludes that in order for change to happen, “Canadians need to be better informed about how much secrecy there is in this country and they need to advocate against that. That fight for truthful information couldn't be more important at a time when disinformation and misinformation is eroding the very foundations of democracy.

“Journalists are on the front lines of that conflict. And Mount Royal University is doing the public a powerful public service by helping train the next generation of reporters.”

Now, more than ever, strong journalistic integrity is needed. Read more about  the MRU Bachelor of Communication ― Journalism program.

July 10, 2020 ― Peter Glenn

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