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P.S.A.'S · 13th September 2010
Merv Ritchie
Ottawa tightens muzzle

Documents reveal scientists need approval from minister's office before speaking with major media - a measure one researcher calls 'Orwellian'

By MARGARET MUNRO, Postmedia News; By Postmedia News September 13, 2010

The Harper government has tightened the muzzle on federal scientists, going so far as to control when and what they can say about floods at the end of the last ice age.

Natural Resources Canada scientists were told this spring they need "pre-approval" from Minister Christian Paradis's office to speak with national and international journalists. Their "media lines" also need ministerial approval, say documents obtained through access-to-information legislation.

The documents say the "new" rules went into force in March and reveal how they apply not only to contentious issues including the oilsands, but benign subjects such as floods that occurred 13,000 years ago.

They also give a glimpse of how Canadians are being cut off from scientists whose work is financed by taxpayers, critics say, and is often of significant public interest.

"It's Orwellian," says Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at University of Victoria. The public, he says, has a right to know what federal scientists are discovering and learning.

Scientists at NRCan, many of them world experts, study everything from seabeds to melting glaciers. They have long been able to discuss their research, until the rules changed in the spring.

"We have new media interview procedures that require pre-approval of certain types of interview requests by the minister's office," wrote Judy Samoil, NRCan's western regional communications manager, in a March 24 email to colleagues.

The policy applies to "high-profile" issues such as "climate change, oilsands" and when "the reporter is with an international or national media organization (such as the CBC or a Canwest paper chain)," she wrote. The Canwest papers are now part of Postmedia Network Inc.

The documents show the new rules being so broadly applied that one scientist was not permitted to discuss a study in a major research journal without "pre-approval" from political staff in Paradis's office.

NRCan scientist Scott Dallimore co-authored the study, published in the journal Nature on April 1, about a colossal flood that swept across northern Canada 13,000 years ago, when massive ice dams gave way at the end of the last ice age.

The study was considered so newsworthy that two British universities issued releases to alert the international media. It was, however, deemed so sensitive in Ottawa that Dallimore, who works at NRCan's laboratories outside Victoria, was told he had to wait for clearance from the minister's office.

Dallimore tried to tell the department's communications managers the flood study was anything but politically sensitive. "This is a blue sky science paper," he said, noting: "There are no anticipated links to minerals, energy or anthropogenic climate change."

But the bureaucrats in Ottawa insisted. "We will have to get the minister's office approval before going ahead with this interview," Patti Robson, the department's media relations manager, wrote after a reporter from Postmedia News approached Dallimore.

Robson asked Dallimore to provide the reporter's questions and "the proposed responses," saying: "We will send it up to MO (minister's office) for approval."

Read the source: at the Montreal Gazette Here.