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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2010

Media Rules Muzzle Federal Scientists

Scientists at Natural Resources Canada must have ministerial approval before speaking to journalists, according to documents obtained by Postmedia News reporter Margaret Munro through the Access to Information Act.

The new rules, in effect since March, require scientists to have approval from Minister Christian Paradis’ office before openly discussing not only current and controversial issues, but also events dating back to the last ice age.

“We have new media interview procedures that require pre-approval of certain types of interview
requests by the minister’s office,” wrote Judy Samoil, Natural Resources western regional communications manager, in a March 24 e-mail to colleagues.

The rules meant that Natural Resources scientist Scott Dalli­more was blocked from answering media questions about an ar­ticle he co-authored in the journ­al Nature on a colossal flood that swept across northern Canada 13,000 years ago.

“We will have to get the minister’s office approval before going ahead with this interview,” wrote Patricia Robson, Natural Resources media relations manager, in an e-mail to a reporter who approached Dallimore.

Journalists ended up interviewing his co-authors located outside of Canada instead.

“If you can’t get access to a nice, feel-good science story about flooding at the end of (the) last glaciation, can you imagine trying to get access to scientists with information about cadmium and mercury in the Athabasca River?” University of Victoria climatologist Andrew Weaver asked Postmedia News, referring to concerns about contaminants downstream of Alberta’s oil sands operations.

Environment Canada and Health Canada also control media access to federal scientists, and orchestrate interviews that are approved, going so far as drafting “media lines” for researchers.

Weaver says this has even applied to discussing climate studies they have co-authored with him based on research paid for through his university grants.

“There is no question that there is an orchestrated campaign at the federal level to make sure that their scientists can’t communicate to the public about what they do,” he told Postmedia News.

Weaver called the rules “Orwellian,” and said the public — those whose tax dollars fund government science — has every right to know what government scientists are discovering and learning.

“Muzzling scientists who might get in the way of a government’s ideological agenda is more in line with what occurs in dictatorships, not democracies,” said CAUT executive director James Turk. “Once again the Harper government is demonstrating its contempt for science and democracy.”

A Calgary Herald editorial called the rules “ominously totalitar­ian.”

“We understand the desire for organizations, public or private, to have people who are media-trained and media-literate,” the paper’s Sept. 15 editorial said. “But to micro-manage it to the extent that reporters must submit questions so the expert can deliver government-approved scripted responses, as was the case, is paranoia of Orwellian proportions.”