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Enviro Law Clinic asks for investigation of government 'muzzling' of scientists

The Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Victoria has published its request to the Information Commissioner of Canada, asking for an investigation of the muzzling of federal scientists, including a report detailing numerous cases in which either researchers were silenced or their findings were kept from the media.

In its letter of transmittal to Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, the ELC wrote:

We request that you initiate an investigation under s. 30(1)(f) of the Access to Information Act into the systematic efforts by the Government of Canada to obstruct the right of the media – and through them, the Canadian public -- to timely access to government scientists. We ask you to take this step because of the deeply troubling findings in the attached report, Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy.

The letter summarizes a number of cases involving scientists in Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Department of National Defence, and Environment Canada who were kept from speaking with media, or whose findings had to be filtered through media-relations officials before being released to reporters -- often long after their deadlines had passed.

The report itself, after documenting these cases, divides them into "direct muzzling" and "indirect muzzling" -- delaying answers to media queries until the deadline has passed and comments from scientists don't matter. It also criticizes "content control and intimidation," in which the media receive more information if their "tone" is expected to be positive, or interviews include media-relations staff who act as "minders" for the scientists. The report then concludes:

The policy changes that have been implemented by the federal government of Canada under the leadership of Prime Minister Harper have dramatically affected the way government information is disseminated in Canada. The Obama administration has also made changes to Communications policies in the United States; however, these changes have been in the opposite direction. Many departmental communications policies now require all media inquiries to be routed through Communications departments. These departments dictate whether or not media inquiries will be responded to and also control all other aspects of the release of government information to the public.

Federal civil servants in Canada, and in particular scientists, are being muzzled by the federal government. Muzzling occurs directly or indirectly; civil servants who are not permitted to speak with the media, or who are not permitted to speak with the media in a time frame that is compatible with the fast-paced media environment, are effectively being muzzled. The federal government is also manipulating the release of government information by selectively permitting or disallowing responses to media inquiries, using communications employees to craft "approved lines" or provide scripted answers to civil servants, and through subtle means of intimidation when allowing civil servants to respond directly to media inquiries, such as requiring all interviews to be recorded or for a communications employee to be present at the time of the interview.

Canada was once recognized internationally as a country that encouraged its scientists to speak freely and openly to the public. However, the federal government is taking steps in the wrong direction and has drawn international criticism in recent years. Even more alarming is the fact that the federal government has ignored all such criticism and seems intent on continuing down this path. Access to government information is a vital part of a healthy democracy. As Nature journal once put it: "The way forward is clear: it is time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free."

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.


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