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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to scientists at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg on May 19, 2009. (JOHN WOODS/John Woods/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to scientists at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg on May 19, 2009. (JOHN WOODS/John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Groups seek formal probe into Ottawa’s ‘muzzling’ of scientists Add to ...

The Information Commissioner of Canada is being asked to launch a formal investigation into the federal government’s policy of controlling media access to scientists.

The government has been under fire from a number of groups over the past few years for refusing to give federally funded scientists clearance to grant interviews without first getting approval from a high level. In some cases scientists have been told they can’t speak to the media at all, even after their research findings have been published.

In a report released last month, the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Victoria catalogued a number of such incidents and accused the government of “muzzling” it scientists and keeping the public in the dark about key issues such as climate change and the impact of oil sands development.

Now, in a letter released Wednesday, the Environmental Law Clinic and Democracy Watch have jointly asked the Information Commissioner for “an investigation . . . 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.”

Calvin Sandborn, Legal Director of UVic’s Environmental Law Clinic, said there have been a number of incidents which suggest the government is deliberately trying to restrict the flow of scientific information from researchers to the public.

“Basically we are saying there is a systematic pattern in the government’s actions in restricting public access to research,” said Mr. Sandborn.

“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,” states the letter, which is addressed to Suzanne Legault, the Information Commissioner of Canada.

“We as a society cannot make informed choices about critical issues if we are not fully informed about the facts,” states the letter.

The letter notes that the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada has complained that “public access to federal scientists has become politicized, resulting in an inability to effectively communicate important scientific news to Canadians through mainstream media.”

And it quotes the Canadian Science Writers Association as expressing concerns about “the disturbing practices of the Canadian government in denying journalists timely access to government scientists.”

In one incident on the West Coast, a federal fisheries scientist, Dr. Kristi Miller, was denied permission to speak to the media about her work on salmon genetics, even after her research paper had been published in an international journal.

The letter to the Information Commissioner attaches a report that complains about numerous incidents involving several federal ministries. It notes that in 2010 Natural Resources Canada implemented a media relations policy that required researchers get clearance from the minister’s office for “certain types of interview requests.”

The letter said that Judy Samoil, a communications manager for Natural Resources Canada, told colleagues in an e-mail that the policy applied to high-profile issues such as “climate change, oil sands [and when] the reporter is with an international or national media organization.”

The letter to the Information Commissioner states the request for an investigation is being made “because 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.”

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