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Watchdog to probe alleged ‘muzzling’ of scientists

Information Commissioner of Canada Suzanne Legault responds to a question during a news conference after the tabling in Parliament of the special report, Report Cards 2011-2012, Thursday December 6, 2012 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/CP

Canada's Information Commissioner has launched an investigation into the activities of seven federal departments for allegedly "muzzling" scientists.

In response to a 133-page complaint filed by the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre, Assistant Information Commissioner Emily McCarthy has stated her office is investigating possible violations of the Access to Information Act.

"The Commissioner has concluded that, to the extent that your complaint alleges that the right of access to information under the Act is impeded by government policies, practices or guidelines that restrict or prohibit government scientists from speaking with the media and the Canadian public, your complaint falls within the scope … of the Act," Ms. McCarthy states in a letter to Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the ELC.

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She said the departments of Environment, Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources, National Defence, the Treasury Board Secretariat, National Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will all be investigated.

Mr. Sandborn said the letter was "great news" for the ELC and law student Clayton Greenwood, who put the complaint together after reading numerous newspaper stories that reported the difficulties of the media in gaining access to government scientists.

In its complaint to Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, the ELC asked for an investigation into "the systematic efforts of the Government of Canada to obstruct the right of the media – and through them, the Canadian public – to timely access to government scientists."

The ELC's report, Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy, catalogues a series of incidents in which scientists had been restricted from granting interviews to reporters.

The complaint stated that "the federal government is preventing the media and the Canadian public from speaking to government scientists for news stories – especially when the scientists' research or point of view runs counter to current Government policies on matters such as environmental protection, oil sands development, and climate change."

The ELC complaint, which was filed in conjunction with Democracy Watch, states the government policy of restricting media access to scientists "impoverishes the public debate on issues of significant national concern."

The report notes that the World Federation of Science Journalists and the Canadian Science Writers' Association have both complained about the lack of "timely access" to government scientists.

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It also states that an Environment Canada analysis of the government's media access policy was frustrating to federal scientists.

"They feel the intent of the policy is to prevent them from speaking to the media," stated the Environment Canada analysis.

The ELC report quotes the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada as stating: "This government, by suppressing access to this information, is depriving the Canadian and international communities of significant discoveries."

It is standard practice of the federal government to require any scientist who is asked for an interview to first get approval from public relations officials with the ministry. Approval, or denial, can take days and often the decision is made by officials in Ottawa. In 2011, for example, reporters were denied access to Kristi Miller, a DFO scientist who had just published a paper on her research into salmon disease on the West Coast.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More


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