Harper government’s ‘muzzlers’ still discouraging scientists from speaking to reporters

It appears that the Harper government 'muzzlers' are still on the prowl.

According to an article by PostMedia News, Environment Canada officials have confirmed that there are in fact contaminants accumulating in the precipitation near oil sands operations.

While that is pretty significant news, the more concerning piece of information in the article was that, once again, federal scientists were kept from publicly sharing research information.

"[Environment Canada's] research conducted during winter 2010-11 confirms results already published by the University of Alberta that show contaminants in snow in the oilsands area," said an Environment Canada 'background' document obtained by PostMedia.

"If scientists are approached for interviews at the conference, the EC communications policy will be followed by referring the journalist to the media relations ... phone number. An appropriate spokesperson will then be identified depending on journalist questions."

The article also notes that the scientists were emailed a list of scripted responses: they were told to say that tests in 2010 showed no toxins in the Athabasca River and no links between contaminants and marine life.

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If this was just a one-off, you could chalk it up to a simple communications strategy. But this is becoming all to common in the federal scientific community.

In April, it was learned that scientists at a polar conference in Montreal were warned not to talk to the media without a 'chaperon.'

In October, Dr. David Tarasick published findings about one of the largest ozone holes ever discovered above the Arctic. But the federal scientist was prohibited, by Environment Canada, from speaking to the media about it.

Researcher Kristi Miller was also barred from granting interviews about her research into a virus that might be killing wild sockeye salmon the coast of British Columbia.

Environmental artist and activist Franke James believes there's a pattern here.

"Thank goodness for the access to information law! Otherwise we could only guess what was happening behind-the-scenes," she told Yahoo! Canada News in an email exchange.

"This latest incident demonstrates that Environment Canada scientists are capable of doing unbiased, scientifically-sound research — but they are being muzzled by the Harper Government's Orwellian information control machine," she said.

"This goes back to the 2007 change in policy, where scientists were forbidden from speaking to the media directly, and their department had to speak with one voice. The government is purposely suppressing evidence about the negative impacts of the oil sands."

Last year, James alleged that the Harper government pulled her funding for an international art show because her 'visual essays' challenged the Canadian government over its inaction on climate change.

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She believes this latest muzzling could come back to haunt them.

"This will come back to bite them — in the form of lawsuits by surrounding communities and investors in the oil sands who have been misled by the "rosy" false picture presented," she said.

"The government is letting the oil industry run roughshod over the rights of anyone and anything that gets in their way."