The continuing saga of the Harper government’s suppression and manipulation of public communication by Canadian government scientists is documented in a new report from the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. The report 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. … Federal civil servants in Canada, and in particular scientists, are being muzzled by the federal government.”
Report from the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Victoria in British Columbia: Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy?
The report begins with a request to Suzanne Legault, Information Commissioner of Canada:
… 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. …
As noted in the attached report:
• The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, that represents government scientists, has stated:
Media and public access to federal scientists has become politicized, resulting in an inability to effectively communicate important scientific news to Canadians through mainstream media.
• A letter to the Prime Minister signed by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, World Federation of Science Journalists, and Canadian Science Writers Association stated:
Over the past four years, journalists and scientists alike have exposed the disturbing practices of the Canadian government in denying journalists timely access to government scientists…federal scientists are still not allowed to speak to reporters without the “consent” of media relations officers…Delays in obtaining interviews are often unacceptable and journalists are routinely denied interviews.
• The internationally respected science journal, Nature, echoed such experiences and concerns in an editorial.
• An Environment Canada analysis has found that Environment Canada scientists: …are very frustrated with the new process. They feel the intent of the policy is to prevent them from speaking to media.
• The President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada has stated: This government, by suppressing access to this information, is depriving the Canadian and international communities of significant discoveries.
• A prominent academic who was a leading scientific member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize has stated:
There is no question that there is an orchestrated campaign at the federal level to make sure that their scientists can’t communicate to the public about what they do.
• Another prominent academic has stated: We have somehow deemed it OK or permissible for an Iron Curtain to be drawn across the communication of science in this country.
In the past, government scientists could generally share information about their work without such restrictions. This helped citizens become informed, and helped them discover what information – and possibly also what records — Government possessed. This practice educated citizens, enriched public debate, and encouraged sound government decision-making. However, the federal government has developed new policies that undermine the ability of media and the public to obtain information from government scientists. As the report documents:
• The federal government has implemented new policies that routinely require political approval before scientists can speak to the media about their scientific findings. Government scientists are routinely instructed to not speak publicly – or to respond with pre-scripted “approved lines” that have been vetted by public relations specialists.
• For example, under Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) policy, Communications staff now comprehensively control interviews with scientists and “ensure that approved media lines are in place.” No journalist is to be granted an interview until the Minister’s own Director of Communications has been notified.
• Natural Resources Canada has adopted particularly strict rules restricting the ability of scientists to talk to the media about “climate change” and “oil sands.”
• Environment Canada’s policy specifically forbids scientists from speaking to the public on identified issues such as climate change or protection of polar bear and caribou until the Privy Council Office gives approval. Environment Canada has conceded that the Minister and his staff have a say as to whether or not the media will have access to a scientist.
The report goes on to document a number of specific incidents where scientists have been prevented from sharing their taxpayer-funded research with the media and the Canadian public.
Restricting media access cuts off the public’s access to government scientists’ information and viewpoints. The media plays an irreplaceable role in the democratic process – by disseminating information to the public. The role of the media has been formally recognized as critically important by the Supreme Court of Canada:
The role of investigative journalism has expanded over the years to help fill what has been described as a democratic deficit in the transparency and accountability of our public institutions.
Cutting off access to government’s best information on an issue damages the quality of public debate.
From the report’s Conclusion:
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.”
The Toronto Star reported on March 20:
‘Muzzling’ of Canadian government scientists sent before Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault
One civil servant calls situation “absolutely embarrassing”; 128-page report detailing the communication barriers Canadian government scientists face now in front of Information Commissioner
Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is being asked to investigate the “muzzling” of Canadian government scientists in a request backed by a 128-page report detailing “systemic efforts” to obstruct access to researchers.
“She is uniquely positioned, and she has the resources and the legal mandate, to get to the bottom of this,” says Chris Tollefson. Tollefson is executive director of the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre, which issued the request with the non-partisan Democracy Watch.
Newsrooms nationwide are familiar with the unusual restrictions Canadian government scientists face when attempting to communicate their work. …
Government scientists who were contacted for this story informed the Star directly and through intermediaries that they did not want to comment, fearing repercussions.
But one researcher with well over a decade of experience in the civil service, who asked to remain anonymous because he said both management and his union have told him he could face penalties for speaking out publicly, called the situation “absolutely embarrassing.”
“All of my colleagues around the world know about this, and they simply can’t understand what is going on in Canada,” the scientist said. …
The report … details how public relations staff accompanied researchers to an International Polar Year conference, and directed all requests for interviews through themselves. In two high-profile incidents, scientists researching Arctic ozone loss, and others studying salmon declines, were not given media clearance for weeks or months. …