A major step against the silencing of government scientists in Canada took place earlier this month. A coalition of scientists working with the non-profit Democracy Watch submitted a 128 page report to the Federal Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, to investigate the “muzzling” of Canadian government scientists. This report comes in response to the increasing difficulty Canadian government scientists have in bringing their research to press, as well as obstacles journalists and reporters face in interviewing them for publicly viewed media.
Since the Conservative government gained majority in 2006, the ability of government scientists to communicate their work to the public has become increasingly restricted. The scientists most often barred are those whose research contradicts Conservative government policy, such as oil sand development in Alberta, conservation of Canadian biodiversity, or the delay of building sustainable energy infrastructure.
Cited in the report, Environment Canada in 2007 established its Media Relations Policy in order to improve “limited coordination of messages across the country”. However, the policy severely restricted the free speech of Environment Canada scientists, requiring any press requesting an interview to be routed through a bureaucratic approval. The Minister of the Environment himself reserves the power to decline interviews between Environment Canada scientists and the press. Since the inception of the Media Relations Policy, coverage of climate change science has dropped eighty percent in Canadian media. The adoption of nearly identical media relation policies have stifled scientific transparency in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources Canada, and the National Research Council.
According to the report, these media restrictions on publicly funded scientists violate the 1983 Access to Information Act. Ushered in under the Trudeau government, the Act states “The purpose of this Act is…to provide a right of access to information in records under the control of a government institution…[and] that necessary exceptions to the right of access should be limited and specific.” The report believes that restricting media access to government scientists violates and exceeds these “necessary exceptions”, originally designed to prevent the spread of questionable media.
The report’s findings will be reviewed and investigated by the Office of the Information Commissioner, and conclude whether the new media relation policies violate the Access to Information Act. If the Office finds the report’s claims to be valid, it will file a judicial review case with a Federal Court. Given the scope of this report’s findings, such a case could be appealed to the Supreme Court to analyze the constitutionality of these access to information laws.
Canada’s freedom to information policies have faced criticism from world governments and watchdogs in recent years. An article published in Nature last February criticized Canada’s treatment of government scientists, comparing its decreasing transparency to recent information reforms in the United States under the Obama administration. Canada falls fifty-first in a recent international freedom of information ranking, placing lower than developing countries such as Angola and Niger.