Saturday, 2 February 2008


Why wouldn’t Environment Canada want their scientists to talk to the media? What will be the sanctions if they did? Since when can a citizen be muzzled on the sole pretext that he works for the government and everything must be centralized? What does this lack of transparency hide? What are we to make of this? How many other scientists and other civil servants have been subdued to the same line of censorship that we don’t know about? What are the ‘’approved lines’’? Who is approving them?

Troublesome times we live in!

Government 'muzzles' scientists

New policy at Environment Canada makes researchers give 'approved lines'
MARGARET MUNRO, Canwest News ServicePublished: Friday, February 01, 2008

Environment Canada has "muzzled" its scientists around the country, ordering them to refer all media queries to Ottawa where communications officers will help them respond with "approved lines."

The new policy, which went into force in recent weeks and sent a chill through the department research divisions, is designed to control the department's media message and ensure there are no surprises for Environment Minister John Baird and senior management when they open the newspaper or turn on the television, according to documents obtained by Canwest News Service.

"Just as we have 'one department, one website' we should have 'one department, one voice,' " says a PowerPoint presentation from Environment Canada's executive management committee that has been sent to department staff.

Environment Canada scientists, many of them world leaders in their fields, have long been encouraged to discuss their work on everything from migratory birds to melting Arctic ice with the media and public. Several of them were co-authors of the United Nations report on climate change that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

"It's insulting," says one senior staff member, who asked not to be named. She says researchers can no longer even discuss or confirm science facts without approval from the highest level.

Until now, Environment Canada has been one of most open and accessible departments in the federal government, which the executive committee says is a problem that needs to be remedied.

It says all media queries must now be routed through Ottawa, where "media relations will work with individual staff to decide how to best handle the call; this could include: Asking the program expert to respond with approved lines; having media relations respond; referring the call to the minister's office; referring the call to another department," the presentation says.

Gregory Jack, acting director of Environment Canada's ministerial and executive services, says scientists and "subject matter experts" will still be made available to speak to the media "on complex and technical issues." He would not explain how "approved lines" are being written and who is approving them.

Jack said the policy is meant to bring Environment Canada in line with other federal departments, but he insists "there is no change in the access in terms of scientists being able to talk."

The reality, insiders say, is the policy is blocking communication and infuriating scientists. Researchers have been told to refer all media queries to Ottawa. The media office then asks reporters to submit their questions in writing. Sources say researchers are then asked to respond in writing to the media office, which then sends the answers to senior management for approval. If a researcher is eventually cleared to do an interview, he or she is instructed to stick to the "approved lines."

University of Victoria climatologist Andrew Weaver works closely with several Environment Canada scientists. He says the policy points to the Conservative government's fixation with micro-management and accused the government of "manufacturing the message of science."

"They've been muzzled," says Weaver of the federal expert scientists who once spoke freely about their fields of work, be it atmospheric winds affecting airliners or disease outbreaks at bird colonies.

The one area exempted from having to go through head office is the weather service, "due to volume and technical nature of inquiries," the Power-Point presentation says.

Under the new policy, Environment Canada employees "shall not," the presentation says, "speculate about events, incidents, issues or future policy decisions." Whether this prohibition covers speculation about the impacts of phenomena such as climate change, which is reshaping Canadian and global ecosystems, is not clear.

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