The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has just awarded the Harper Conservative government here in Canada a failing grade in promoting free expression.

Federal scientists’ freedom of expression: F

  • Canada’s control over the communications of federally funded scientists is alarming. Climate change science coverage in the media has plummeted by 80 per cent since 200, drastically reducing information available to Canadians. Some scientists have been denied permission to talk to the media about their research even after it was published in peer-reviewed journals.

Not to mention that the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom has awarded the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA) and the Association des communicateurs scientifiques (ACS) their annual Press Freedom Award “for their work in exposing government restrictions on federal scientists that prevent or delay the free communication of public science through the media.”

CCWPF member Bob Carty says his committee selected these associations for its prize to send a message to the Harper government that “Canadians have the right, through the media, to access the expertise of publicly funded scientists, and those federal scientists have the right to freedom of expression.”

“Science is critical to Canadian society. From climate change to oil pipelines, from epidemics to the safety of our food and water, we need to know the results of the scientific work our taxes support. We need our media to be unencumbered by needless government delays and ideological filtering,” Carty says.

And we can certainly see the evidence about the government’s disdain for scientists and information in general in some recent media reports:

Scientists are told how to behave and what to say at conferences.

Harper government ‘muzzlers’ are on the prowl at an international polar conference about everything from seabirds to arctic ice.

According to an article by PostMedia News, media instructions have been sent to the Environment Canada researchers attending the week long meeting in Montreal.

“If you are approached by the media, ask them for their business card and tell them that you will get back to them with a time for (an) interview,” the Environment Canada scientists were told by email late last week.

“Send a message to your media relations contact and they will organize the interview. They will most probably be with you during the interview to assist and record,” says the email obtained by Postmedia News.

The memo, signed by Kristina Fickes, an Environment Canada senior communications adviser, goes on to say that recordings of interviews are to be forwarded to the department’s media relations headquarters in Ottawa. Fickes signs off with a signature tagline that says: “Let the sun shine in :)”

Which somehow the Minister of the Environment thinks is a totally normal practice among the science community. Or something.

Controlling the free speech of Canadian scientists who work for the government is an “established practice,” says Environment Minister Peter Kent.

Responding to a Postmedia News report, Kent suggested that the government was doing the right thing.

*snip*

“There is nothing new in the email that was sent to attendees,” Kent said in the House of Commons on Monday, in response to questions from NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie.

“It is established practice to coordinate media availability. In fact, many of our younger scientists seek advice from our departmental communications staff.”

*snip*

“Where we run into problems is when journalists try to lead scientists away from science and into policy matters,” Kent said. “When it comes to policy, ministers address those issues.”

*snip*

“What we did expect, given your distinguished and extensive background in journalism, was that when a reporter questioned you about the present muzzling of federal scientists by the Conservative government, the 2012 incarnation of the man who was recipient of the 2006 President’s Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association of Canada would have said that not only are you against it, but that if the muzzling doesn’t stop, you will be submitting your resignation to the Prime Minister,” said the letter.

And yeah, the very same minister used to be an award-winning journalist.

Minister Kent, people are noticing that it’s happening. And people, citizens of Canada, know and understand why it’s important to stop muzzling scientists and let them speak freely about what they have discovered.

What does this say about us as a society?

For some, there’s far more at stake here than a simple opportunity for a biologist or a climatologist to talk about viruses or the ozone layer.

“If scientists working within government are not free to discuss their science and the potential implications of it, then what does that say about us as a society?” asks Jeffrey Hutchings, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Marine Conservation and Biodiversity at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

*snip*

It is, as he puts it, that “we have somehow deemed it OK or permissible for an Iron Curtain to be drawn across the communication of science in this country.”

*snip*

“We are now seen on the international stage as a pariah and five years ago, or maybe six, that was not the case,” Pedersen says.

“Canada was praised internationally for its scientific efforts and its openness as a society. And now we seem to have turned our back on that.”

Yup, Canada is a scientific pariah on the international stage.

Some previous blog posts related to this topic:

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