Enviro Law Clinic asks for investigation of government ‘muzzling’ of scientists

‘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 by Kate Allen, March 15, 2013, The Toronto Star
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. For a story last December on how climate change is affecting the Arctic and Antarctic, The Star contacted scientists at NASA, Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada. Emails to the U.S. government scientists were personally returned, usually the same day and with offers to talk in person or by phone. Emails sent to Canadian government scientists led to apologetic responses that the request would have to be routed through public relations officials. Public relations staff asked for a list of questions in advance, and then set boundaries for what subjects the interview could touch upon. Approval to interview the scientists was given days later. In all cases, a PR staffer asked to listen in on the interviews.

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.

Tollefson says Legault’s office has confirmed it has received the request. Following usual practices, a preliminary investigation will be conducted to see whether the commissioner has jurisdiction to carry out a full probe. The report was compiled by law student Clayton Greenwood, who spoke to approximately 40 sources. It 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. … Last year the journal Nature published an editorial criticizing Canadian policies that limit the freedom of scientists to talk to the press; The Guardian and the Economist have also covered the topic.

Enviro Law Clinic asks for investigation of government ‘muzzling’ of scientists by Crawford Kilian, March 15, 2013, The Tyee.ca
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 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. … Federal civil servants in Canada, and in particular scientists, are being muzzled by the federal government. Muzzling occurs directly or indirectly.

[Refer also to: Ermächtigungsgesetz

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