‘Muzzling’ of federal scientists called a threat to democracy

‘Muzzling’ of federal scientists called a threat to democracy by Margaret Munro, February 20, 2013, Calgary Herald
Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has been asked to investigate the way the Harper government has been “muzzling” federal scientists. The request, accompanied by a report on the government’s “systematic efforts” to obstruct access to researchers, was made jointly on Wednesday by the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria and Democracy Watch, a national non-profit group. “There are few issues more fundamental to democracy than the ability of the public to access scientific information produced by government scientists – information that their tax dollars have paid for,” they say. “We as a society cannot make informed choices about critical issues if we are not fully informed about the facts.” … The evidence is collected in “Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy?” a 128-page report also sent to Legault.

The report notes the Harper government has generated national and international headlines for stopping government researchers from talking about their studies on prehistoric floods, the unprecedented 2011 Arctic Ozone hole, and snow research in Ontario. It argues the government has implemented policies that now “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,’ ” it says.

The report points to Fisheries and Oceans Canada where communications staff  “now comprehensively controls interviews“ with scientists. “No journalist is to be granted an interview until the Minister’s own Director of Communications has been notified,” the report says. Natural Resources Canada has adopted “particularly strict rules restricting the ability of scientists to talk to the media about ‘climate change’ and ‘oil sands,’ ” the report says. And Environment Canada “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,” it says. Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the UVIC’s Environmental Law Centre, says “the name George Orwell comes to mind.”

He said in an interview that the policies undermine and violate different sections, as well as the spirit, of the information act that provides a right of access to government information. He and his colleagues also say it “impoverishes” public debate. “Canadians cannot make smart choices about critical issues such as climate change, oil sands development and environmental protection if the public does not have full access to the Government’s best scientific knowledge on those issues.” They  government policy of obstructing access to scientists also hampers the ability of the public to know and identify what government information and records actually exist related to issues of public importance, they say.  “Without such knowledge, the public may not be able to request or obtain relevant records under the Access to Information Act.” [Emphasis added]

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