Science & Environment

Has Canada's government been muzzling its scientists?

Microphone
Image caption Journalists say the rules prevent scientists talking about publicly-funded research

Canada's Information Commission is to investigate claims that the government is "muzzling" its scientists.

The move is in response to a complaint filed by academics and a campaign group.

BBC News reported last year instances of the government blocking requests by journalists to interview scientists.

Some scientists alleged that the muzzling could help suppress environmental concerns about government policies.

The former president of the Canadian Science Writers' Association, Veronique Morin, says that the commissioner's office will now have to find out if the federal government has in effect been operating a policy of censorship.

"Vital stories pertaining to the environment, natural resources, food safety, fisheries and oceans are not coming out in Canada because, for several years now, the government has imposed rules which prevents its scientists from speaking freely about their publicly funded research," she said.

"I am thrilled that the information commissioner has decided to take this on, and I am looking forward to the commission's report."

Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper reports that the Information Commission is investigating seven government departments: Environment, Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources, National Defence, the Treasury Board Secretariat, National Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The investigation is in response to a complaint filed by the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre (ELC) and the campaign group Democracy Watch.

Timely access

In a letter to the ELC, the assistant information commissioner, Emily McCarthy, 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 scopeā€¦ of the Act," she said.

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

Prof Jean-Marc Fleury, director of the WFSJ, said: "Canadian science journalists' fight against the Canadian government obstructing access to government researchers has finally achieved a major step forward."

The Canadian government has repeatedly denied allegations of muzzling rather a strict application of a "media protocol" set out by the governing Conservatives, shortly after their election in 2008.

The aim of the protocol, according to a leaked internal document, is to ensure that all messages from scientists are along "approved lines". The government's stated protocol is that ministers and senior civil servants should not be "surprised" by what they read in the newspapers.

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