Canada’s ‘creeping authoritarianism’ in political pre-screening of scientists’ media contact


Documents obtained through freedom of information law show how Canada’s Harper government is controlling federal scientists’ ability to communicate with journalists on scientific issues. The requirement for ministerial-level pre-approval for media contacts applies broadly, not only to politically contentious issues like climate change and oil sands. “It’s Orwellian,” says Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at University of Victoria, quoted in the Montreal Gazette. The public has a right to know what federal scientists are discovering and learning. On this issue, the Ottawa Citizen suggests the Harper government is engaged in “a creeping and worrisome authoritarianism.”The Montreal Gazette reported on September 13 (excerpt):

Ottawa tightens muzzle

Documents reveal scientists need approval from minister’s office before speaking with major media—a measure one researcher calls ‘Orwellian’

By Margaret Munro

The Harper government has tightened the muzzle on federal scientists, going so far as to control when and what they can say about floods at the end of the last ice age.

Natural Resources Canada scientists were told this spring they need “pre-approval” from Minister Christian Paradis’s office to speak with national and international journalists. Their “media lines” also need ministerial approval, say documents obtained through access-to-information legislation.

The documents say the “new” rules went into force in March and reveal how they apply not only to contentious issues including the oilsands, but benign subjects such as floods that occurred 13,000 years ago.

They also give a glimpse of how Canadians are being cut off from scientists whose work is financed by taxpayers, critics say, and is often of significant public interest….

The Ottawa Citizen editorialized on September 15 (excerpt):

Off With the Muzzles

What is the Harper government afraid of? Scientists at Natural Resources Canada have been told they need “pre-approval” from the minister’s office before speaking to journalists, according to access-to-information documents obtained by Postmedia News….

These rules are apparently being applied so broadly that a Natural Resources scientist, Scott Dallimore, co-author of a study published in the journal Nature on flooding in northern Canada at the end of the last ice age 13,000 years ago, was told he needed the approval of the minister’s political staff before discussing his work publicly.

This is asinine. Granted, democratically elected governments have every right to set their policy agendas, and it is not unreasonable of them to expect public servants to deliver programs reflecting that agenda. But there is a big difference between toeing the line on policy delivery and being forbidden from openly discussing scientific information that is of significant public interest—the levels of fish stocks or polar bear populations, for example.

Trying to control the policy agenda—and its attendant message—is prudent politics. But trying to control information Canadians have paid for and that they need to stay informed is, well, bad policy….

The editorial concludes with a message that applies to the U.S. government as well – both political-level appointees and career federal managers (emphasis added):

Admittedly, information can be used to attack government policy….But that does not justify the government’s engaging in the de facto censorship of publicly funded information. A government worth its salt accepts the risk of criticism in recognition that its interests are secondary to ensuring the free flow of information necessary to maintaining a vigorous democracy….

The Harper government, in its effort to control the message (and the media), reveals its mistrust of citizens’ ability to inform themselves and make responsible choices based on the best information available. Such mistrust suggests a creeping and worrisome authoritarianism.


Our position on this is pretty straightforward. The principles we apply to the U.S. government should be applicable to Canada as well. On matters when there is tension between truthful scientific communication and the convenience of government policymakers, our position is hard-line on the side of science:

Government scientists have a right to freedom of communication with the public, whether through the media or through speaking directly. They have a right to speak about their own research, about research in their field, or about any other scientific issue, at their discretion. It is not legitimate for political appointees, career managers, or public affairs offices to block or censor communication by scientists, or to tell scientists what they may speak about and what they may say.

Scientists can be required to state what is termed a ‘personal views exception’ if they discuss policy or program issues related to scientific research (i.e., they can be required to make clear they they speak on such matters as individual citizens, not as representatives of official government policy) – but scientists do not forfeit their constitutionally protected freedom of speech when they become government employees.

Scientists should be able to communicate on scientific issues, with appropriate official support, even in cases when the communication might be ‘politically sensitive’ or inconvenient for current policymakers. It is not the job of scientists to make life convenient for elected officials and agency managers – it is their job to advance scientific understanding and communicate science truthfully.

The government should not expect to ‘speak with one voice’ on matters of scientific research, nor should individual government agencies. Those who would manipulate science communication for ‘message control’ or conformity with the policies of the current crop of elected officials are engaged in an anti-scientific exercise in ‘creeping authoritarianism.’

Government must be required to implement all statutory protections of freedom of communication, including proactively informing scientists of their rights to communicate, and ensuring that all applicable whistleblower protections are honored. (Cases that involve classified material pertaining to national security are in a separate category for discussion, but even such cases should be subject to appropriate whistleblower protection.)

Much of what we say about communication by government scientists should be applicable to government employees generally – as advocated and fought for by our sponsors, the Government Accountability Project.

Earlier CSW posts on the Harper government and science communication:

March 15: Leaked document says Canadian federal climate scientists being blocked from media contact

July 23, 2008: Canadian government mimics US “quiet release” method for major climate and health report

February 13, 2008: New Harper government policy muzzles communication by Environment Canada government scientists

On related U.S. issues, see:

July 28, 2010: White House Ends Climate Change Gag Order: EPA Whistleblowers Now Free to Speak Out

October 19, 2008: New study of media policies finds some U.S. federal agencies stifle scientists’ contact with reporters

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