DND restricts interviews during election campaign
The Canadian Press
Published Friday, September 19, 2008 6:08PM EDT
The Defence Department has ordered staff to limit media interviews during the federal election campaign in a move critics charge is nothing more than an attempt to contain potentially damaging coverage of the Afghan mission.
An official within the department said this week that a directive had been issued to staff that they cannot grant interviews for the duration of the five-week campaign.
"During an election period it is of utmost importance that National Defence employees and Canadian Forces members do not act in any way that could influence -- or be perceived as influencing -- the outcome of the electoral process," reads the directive, sent to The Canadian Press following a request for an interview on a health matter affecting Canadian Forces personnel.
"The government acts with restraint, confining itself to necessary public business. It is hoped that you may want to continue with your query after Election Day."
However, Marc Raider, a Defence spokesman, called the instruction "a guideline not a directive" and denied there is a total ban on media interviews during the election.
"It's not like we're not granting interviews," he said Friday, adding they are merely being cautious about not influencing the outcome of the election.
One Defence staffer said the instruction was issued just before the election call Sept. 7, and has been sent to personnel as a standard response for media requests.
"It's very frustrating" a Forces member, who wanted to remain anonymous, said while fielding a reporter's query.
The edict is affecting Canadian journalists at the military base in Kandahar, where they have been told that it could take days to set up interviews, if granted at all, and that the flow of information would be slowed during the campaign.
Critics were quick to condemn the order, alleging it fits with the Conservative government's practice of controlling the message by withholding information and not letting civil servants speak freely.
"It's ridiculous," said Chris Waddell, a journalism professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.
"Whether there's an election on or not, these people are public servants and accountability shouldn't be suspended in the course of an election campaign nor should information be suspended."
A spokeswoman in the department's media office issued a statement that said officials "continue to communicate with media and the public and grant select interviews."
"For instance, yesterday we issued a news release on the important work of the HMCS St. John's in delivering much-needed food shipments to the people of Haiti affected by the hurricanes."
Myriam Massabki, a spokeswoman with the Privy Council Office, wrote in an email that "during an election, by convention, the government acts with restraint."
It wasn't clear whether other government departments had issued similar directives limiting what bureaucrats could say before the vote on Oct. 14.
Media analysts and the opposition have accused the Tories of trying to keep the contentious Afghan mission off the election radar as Canadians becoming increasingly dissatisfied with its progress.
A recent The Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll found that 62 per cent of Canadians polled believe the cost in lives and resources in Afghanistan has not been worth it.
The results show that the public understands there is a global terrorism threat and it's centred in Afghanistan, but "the Canadian appetite for further direct involvement in this war is very limited."
The issue could be critical for Prime Minister Stephen Harper as he campaigns in vote-rich Quebec, which could push him into majority territory.
"If there' one issue that can in fact be damaging to the prime minister's ambition in Quebec, it has to be the war," said Michel Drapeau, a lawyer and retired Canadian Forces colonel.
"There's no desire to have the Afghanistan issue raised and, by ricochet, anything that is related to it."
News of the clampdown comes days after Parliament's budgetary officer said he received all-party consent to release a report on the full cost of Canada's military mission in Afghanistan -- and he may do so before Canadians go to the polls.
Kevin Page said the report on all past and future costs of completing the six-year-old mission is being finalized and must then go through a peer review before it is made public.
It's a potentially damaging report for Harper, who fought to extend Canada's military mission in Afghanistan to 2011 and under whose government the number of Canadian war dead has climbed to nearly 100.
Dawn Black, NDP defence critic, said the Conservatives have gone against their pledge during the last election campaign to be open, transparent and accountable.
"Now it appears they've totally shut down the department in allowing them to speak to the press or to the Canadian public through the press," she said from her riding in New Westminster, B.C.
"They don't want news that further pushes Canadians against the direction that Stephen Harper and his government have taken in Afghanistan."