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Province's PR shop ordered government web freeze during election

All provincial government websites were to be “frozen” during the election period, according to an e-mail message a communications manager sent just hours before the deadline for posting material.

“As you know, the writ period begins at 1:30 today,” online communications manager Carolynn Hunter wrote in an April 14 e-mail to public affairs bureau directors, managers and others. The Tyee obtained the message through a freedom of information request.

“During the writ period, web content is 'frozen'. Any new Internet websites / webpages should either go live before 1:30 today, April 14, or go into production the day after the provincial election, May 13,” Hunter wrote. “Any postings to Internet websites during the writ period must be approved by the ministry PAB Communications Director.”

The only exceptions were for posting health and public safety information, she said, as well as for fixing spelling mistakes or other minor errors.

The Tyee reported during the election campaign that the housing and social development ministry had delayed its usual monthly reporting of welfare caseload statistics. Released within days of the election, the statistics showed large increases in the caseload.

After the election the NDP released documents the party had obtained showing that public affairs bureau officials had ordered delaying the release of the report.

Both the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun reported at the time that new Citizens' Services Minister Ben Stewart said the government's policy was to be non-partisan and to only release public safety information during the writ period, but he could not provide a written copy of the policy.

“It does not appear to have been written down anywhere,” the Globe paraphrased Stewart saying. The Sun quoted him saying, “"I think it was probably verbal, handled by the deputy ministers' council in terms of instructions."

The provincial government also stopped all “non-essential advertising” between January 12 and May 13 according to a December 12, 2008 memo the public affairs bureau communications director Ron Norman sent to deputy ministers and communications directors.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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