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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News

 

The disappearing free press...

Posted 4/02/14 (Wed)

Censorship, cover up, secrecy and propaganda are all dirty words in a democracy, yet there seems to be some sort of a paradigm shift toward this kind of attitude.

As a journalist, it is my job to gather information, confirm it, then present it to the public, our readers, so they can make an informed decision.

For reasons that continue to baffle me, as my career has progressed over the past 26 years, gathering that information has become increasingly difficult when it should be exactly the opposite.

Ever since the news broke in mid January about the death of a young Kenmare boy, I’ve been trying to get information about that case and present it to our readers. Finally, when court convened, I had to threaten legal action to get the documents that are now in the public domain, even after I made formal requests to obtain them.

Other than the Ward County Sheriff’s Department, there has been little cooperation with any other organization involved in this case.

People who should be considered my competitors, i.e., the Grand Forks Herald, the Minot Daily News and the Fargo Forum, have been more helpful than the state’s attorney’s office, the clerk of court, social services and the state medical examiner’s office.

I remind you that as you read this article, the information that I am again referring to is in the public domain.

Several weeks ago a vacant house caught fire here in Kenmare. When I started asking questions, the local fire department referred me to the regional fire marshal, who referred me to the state fire marshall who referred me to the attorney general’s public information officer who referred me back to the local fire department.

This, my friends, is outrageous. The regional fire marshal admitted that he was here and investigated the fire, yet refused to release any details.

Meanwhile, our headline read, “Arson suspected,” because a woman who wanted to purchase the house, told me lighter fluid cans were found near the house.

Was that so difficult? No lives were lost, there was no insurance on the house, the investigation was complete. Just who are these fire officials protecting, the arsonist?

It’s extremely frustrating as a journalist because there is no name, no address, no age, absoluetely nothing to go on to alert the public that there is an arsonist on the lam. So what do we do then, wait for another building to go up in smoke?

Several months ago, someone stole some equipment from a construction site here in Kenmare. The individual was apprehended by the police but upon calling them, I was told “he is innocent until proven guilty.”

Unfortunately again, no name, no age, no address, no description, nothing. I don’t even know if or when this person appeared in court because I couldn’t get a name of who committed the theft. Just who is being protected here, the public or the perpetrator?

The story came from the construction owner’s own testimony since he was arriving at work and saw it happen.

In December a man tried taking numerous weapons across the border at North Portal and was detained. Once again, I go through all my channels, make all the calls, send all the emails and get nothing. Burke County Sheriff, U.S. Border Patrol, Canada Customs, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, all apparently knew nothing of this case, or so I was told.

We got the story and it was printed. And again, this was a situation where those who should be my competitors assisted in getting the story to the public. I called a good friend at the Regina Leader-Post, who put me in touch with his colleague who was in provincial court to hear the case.

She quickly called me back and gave me the complete story.

In January I wrote a series of articles about the danger of Bakken crude oil and my source was an unlikely one, a newspaper editor in Quebec who doesn’t speak English. Yet he provided e-mail addresses, phone numbers, photographs and other tips and even set up an interview with his town’s mayor after a Bakken crude train exploded there in Lac-Megantic.

It wasn’t that difficult communicating with this journalist who only speaks French. So it begs the question, why are requests for public information from a public entity in the same county as this newspaper so difficult to get?

It just seems that our free press is becoming censored by the very people who have been employed to protect it.