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Gag order sparks debate

May 26 2012

Critics who speak publicly about a disease outbreak on a fish farm don't need to fear retribution because of new provincial legislation, says the province's chief veterinarian.

Confidentially measures in the Animal Health Act, introduced last month, that override the Freedom of Information Act refer only to those administering the act, such as inspectors and laboratory technicians, said Paul Kitching.

"It is people who come into [the situation] as part of their job," Kitching said.

"It's because we need farmers' co-operation. If the farmer feels any information he gives us will be in the media the next day, there will be concerns."

The gag order does not extend to others and the ban will be lifted once a disease is confirmed, Kitching said.

"The information would be made public once it was confirmed. You don't put a quarantine on a farm and not tell anyone," he said.

The legislation, which was previously out of date, brings B.C. into line with most other provinces and ensures unconfirmed disease scares do not affect the market, Kitching said.

However, fish-farm critic and biologist Alexandra Morton, who has conducted her own laboratory tests on salmon and frequently speaks about potential threats to wild salmon from fish-farm disease, finds the legislation alarming - especially as it specifies penalties ranging up to fines of $75,000 or two years in jail.

"I have no idea what is going on here," she said.

In a letter to Morton, Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, says she is right to be concerned.

"The definitions are very broad and the penalties are being specially set at well beyond the level of other offences," he wrote.

"The intention is clearly to prevent any release of information re. disease outbreaks and to severely punish anyone who does release that information."

The bill has also come under intense criticism from NDP agriculture critic Lana Popham and Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who is concerned that the bill overrides Freedom of Information legislation and removes the public's right to obtain some animal health records.

However, Kitching said some animal health records must remain confidential or farmers will not submit samples for testing.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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