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Federal election triggers gag order for Canadian officials in Afghanistan

Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan, William Crosbie (left) and the federal government's representative in Kandahar, Tim Martin, on Dec.14, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Murray Brewster

The federal government has restricted media interviews of officials in Afghanistan because of the election campaign, a move that one critic says hampers the public’s understanding of Canada’s mission in the war-torn country.

The restrictions became known after The Canadian Press requested an interview this week with Tim Martin, Canada’s top diplomat in Kandahar. The request was for a story about a transfer of command ceremony that took place Tuesday at Camp Nathan Smith on the outskirts of Kandahar city.

Such events happen from time to time and Tuesday’s ceremony was expected to mark a major milestone as Canada was set to hand over command of the Provincial Reconstruction Team’s training centre to Afghanistan’s Ministry of the Interior and NATO forces.

It is one of a series of such handovers planned in the coming weeks as Canada winds down combat operations this summer.

A spokesman for the Canadian International Development Agency rejected the interview request, saying Martin would not be granting interviews in the duration of the five-week election campaign.

Adam Sweet said the order restricting federal officials from talking to the media is aimed at preventing them from making public comments that could influence, or appear to influence, the outcome of the election.

“We act with as much restraint as possible, confining ourselves to public business and this rule applies to our communications activities as well,” Sweet said.

Chris Waddell, a journalism professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, said the order is a convenient excuse for Ottawa to avoid scrutiny of its efforts in Afghanistan, a subject that could become particularly sensitive as Canada nears the final days of the mission and questions about its success are raised.

Waddell said officials paid by taxpayers in charge of programs funded by the public should be held to account, regardless of an election.

“Just because an election is on, it doesn’t mean accountability ends,” Waddell said.

“Unless they’re prepared to be withdrawing all their programs in Afghanistan, they should be available to talk.”

Waddell said the order reflects a wider tendency within Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government to clamp down on the flow of information to the public.

“It would be consistent with the Harper government and how it manages the release of information, or the lack thereof,” he said.

The Conservative party declined comment.

A spokeswoman for the Liberals said the party would not implement such a policy, if elected.

“We believe that the mission in Afghanistan should be open and transparent before, during and after an election,” Kate Purchase said in an email.

“We would respect this if we form government.”

The NDP did not return a request seeking comment.

The order appears to be in line with the military’s refusal to provide regularly scheduled updates on combat operations on the Libyan campaign. Before the election call, the military had provided daily briefings on Canada’s involvement in the bombardment of Libya.

Routine information would be posted to the department’s website and intermittent technical briefings would be held only in the event of major developments, a Defence Department spokesman said.

Federal departments are routinely instructed to keep a low-profile during campaigns and officials have been told there would be no exceptions, even with two wars underway.

The order mirrors one that was implemented during the 2008 federal election campaign, when the Defence Department ordered staff to limit interviews with the news media out of similar concerns that their comments could influence the vote.