Thursday, January 06, 2005

PM decides it is not in the "public interest" to name Canadian tsunami victims

Further to my earlier posting "PIPEDA and Canadian Privacy Law: Editorial urges that naming Canadian tsunami victims is in the public interest", the Toronto Star is reporting that the Prime Minister made the call not to publicy name those Canadians affected by the Asian tsunami. The article also refers to the ability of government to release names "in the public interest": - PM made decision not to release information:

"Privacy Act allows for disclosure `in public interest' Martin's office cites `respect for families'


OTTAWA—After days of citing the Privacy Act as a barrier to disclosing names of the missing and dead Canadians in southern Asia, the federal government conceded yesterday it made a discretionary decision not to release the information.

Pressure grew yesterday on the government to release names, especially after the Toronto Star reported it had found several individuals previously presumed missing.

The federal Privacy Act in fact allows a minister to override the privacy law to reveal such information — and it frequently does — in cases that it deems "in the public interest."

There is no definition of what that is or is not.

Here's what section 8.2 (m) of the law actually says:

"Personal information under the control of a government institution may be disclosed ... for any purpose where, in the opinion of the head of the institution, the public interest in disclosure clearly outweighs any invasion of privacy that could result from the disclosure."

In the end, it is now clear, the decision to keep the names secret was Prime Minister Paul Martin's, and not Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew's.

Martin's communications director, Scott Reid, said yesterday the Prime Minister's decision to withhold the names was "triggered by common sense and basic respect for the families involved."

"There is no compelling public interest that would result in the publication of the names of the 146 officially missing Canadians. Quite the contrary, the Prime Minister's strongly held view is that the public interest dictates that we should work closely with the families involved, offering support and assistance in any way possible while respecting their right to privacy."

"In truth, this was not a difficult decision. If families wish to speak publicly about their lost or missing loved ones, that is their decision. But the government will not presume or take that decision for them."


Renée Couturier, a spokesperson for federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, says the federal government occasionally invokes the "public interest" exemption to privacy.


In fact last year, Ottawa invoked the "public interest" 67 times, according to Stoddart's annual report.

But this week, the prevailing view within the foreign affairs department was the information should not be released so as not to cause "further anguish and suffering" to the families, said spokesperson Reynald Doiron.

But Doiron indicated families were not asked if they would consent to a release of their relative's name.

Consultations were held with the Prime Minister's Office, the Privy Council Office, the federal privacy commissioner's office, and the justice department.

It was the Prime Minister who made the final call, said Reid.

In this case, one observer of privacy laws, John Lawford of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said yesterday the government should not be knocked for a decision made while the "chaos" of the disaster is still fresh.

He said it would be a greater concern if the government uses that as a long-term justification for withholding names...."

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