Cohen Clampdown on Confidentiality
Justice Cohen yesterday (23rd June) caved into pressure from the BC Salmon Farmers Association and refused to make damning documents relating to Infectious Salmon Anaemia (ISA) in British Columbia publicly available.
In his 'Ruling on Undertakings of Confidentiality', Justice Cohen deemed various disease reports and other records relating to suspected cases of ISA in B.C. too hazardous for the public to handle. "I have concluded that they ought to remain confidential," he said. "Premature publication of any of that material would defeat the purpose of treating compelled documents confidentially initially".
In doing so, Justice Cohen delivered a crushing blow to freedom of information which does not bode well for the release of documents in August when the Cohen Inquiry finally address infectious diseases on salmon farms.
The BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) argued that releasing the information: "will permit Ms. Morton and other anti-aquaculture activists to selectively interpret the documents for the public, thereby placing a heavy burden on the aquaculture industry to attempt to correct false and misleading information in the media" (Read the BCSFA's arguments in full online - and see more below).
The Globe & Mail reported last month - "Cohen called on to release information on salmon virus" - that:
"A federal public inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River has been accused of suppressing information that an infectious virus has been detected in British Columbia waters. The concern is raised in letters to the Cohen Commission of Inquiry by Gregory McDade, a lawyer representing salmon researcher and anti-fish farm activist Alexandra Morton"
And reported publicly that:
"Mr. McDade wrote that in combing through that vast volume of material, Ms. Morton came across “indications” a disease known as infectious salmon anemia virus, or ISA, may have been detected in fish samples tested by provincial government labs....“There are approximately 35 indications of the existence of ISA identified in these records to date,” he wrote."
However, Justice Cohen ruled yesterday that: "Confidential information is so integral to these documents that effective redaction would render the remaining content meaningless to the reader".
Justice Cohen explained that the release of documents including affidavits "would place an unreasonable burden on commission counsel to review them for redaction purposes".
Moreover, he stated that: "I am satisfied that redaction is an appropriate response in these circumstances".
Read his ruling in full online now via: Ruling on Undertakings of Confidentiality
Other documents made available yesterday have been heavily redacted with sensitive information removed and information literally blacked out. A submission from the BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) gives a tantalizing glimpse into the infectious disease problem the industry - aided and abetted by the Government - is so desperate to keep a lid on.
The BCSFA argued that "the proliferation of these opinions online illustrates that once a document or information is released from the undertaking there is no way for the Commission to exert further control to ensure it is not being misused".
And argued that: "It is clear from the media spin based upon the recent breaches of the undertaking that the Aquaculture Coalition wishes to be released from its undertaking for the sole purpose of harming the interests and reputations of the BCSFA".
The BCSFA concluded by arguing that the application by Alexandra Morton to release disease documents was "intended to allow the participants the opportunity to incite a media trial in advance of the aquaculture hearings" and that "should all materials become public it is likely to become a media circus headed by Ms. Morton where the opinion of qualified professionals will be suppressed as heresy".
Read the BCSFA submission (redacted in parts) in full online now.
Justice Cohen's pro-censorship position is at odds with calls by the public and media for greater transparency and the release of more documents. An Editorial - "Not so public public inquiry" - in The Courier-Islander last month ended with a plea for the publication of more information:
"Not making that information public seems to be in direct contrast with the purpose of the inquiry. The information should be made public. It's vitally urgent."
Justice Cohen's Draconian ruling represents a doomed attempt to close the lid on the can of worms that is the B.C. salmon farming industry and precludes, for the time being at least, the release of streams of information related to infectious diseases. Sadly, the public will have to wait with baited bad breath until at least August for all the information to come out in the wash.
Shame on the Cohen Commission for once again siding with industry and championing confidentiality ahead of transparency. Locking up public documents and throwing away the key is no way to run a public inquiry.
For more background on the Cohen Inquiry's lack of transparency read:
"Fishy commission blackout" (North Shore News, 11th May): http://www.nsnews.com/health/Fishy+commission+blackout/4763990/story.html
"Not so public public inquiry" (The Courier-Islander, 6th May): http://www2.canada.com/courierislander/news/opinion/story.html?id=ffd0aa09-d018-4414-94f2-a196906f463f
"Salmon disease information kept under wraps" (The Courier-Islander, 6th May): http://www2.canada.com/courierislander/news/story.html?id=bcea1bc9-6d73-497d-9e9b-25ae78b60fce
"Rules keep fish findings under wraps" (The Times Colonist, 5th May): http://www.timescolonist.com/Rules+keep+fish+findings+under+wraps/4731508/story.html
"Cohen called on to release information on salmon virus" (The Globe & Mail, 4th May): http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/british-columbia/cohen-called-on-to-release-information-on-salmon-virus/article2009104/
"Slippery secret salmon science society" (The Salmon Guy, 3rd May): http://www.salmonguy.org/?p=4003