Could muzzling federal scientists be illegal?

The Information Commissioner of Canada is being asked to investigate whether "federal government policy forcing scientists to jump through hoops before speaking with the media" breaches the Access to Information Act.

The request was made as part of a complaint filed Wednesday by Democracy Watch, a non-profit organization that advocates for government accountability, and the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic.

"In sharp contrast to past Canadian practice and current U.S. Government practice, the federal government has recently made efforts to prevent the media and the general public from speaking to government scientists,” said Tyler Sommers, coordinator of Democracy Watch, in a statement.

He noted that the scientists conduct research that is paid for by taxpayers who therefore have a right to learn the results.

Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic, said in a statement that "Canadians cannot make smart choices about critical issues such as climate change, oil sands development, and environmental protection if the public does not have full, timely access to the government’s best scientific knowledge on those issues.

"This is why we’ve filed this complaint and why we are asking for a full investigation."

Sommers said the groups believe that parts of the act being violated include those that:

State government information should be available to the public and necessary exceptions to the right of access should be limited and specific.

Specify that the government should provide "timely access" to records without regard to the identity of a person making the request.

"We don't know how far-reaching the situation is," he added in an interview.

While he thinks certain sections of the act are being violated, based on a limited investigation by Democracy Watch and the Environmental Law Clinic, he suggested that the information commissioner, "may be able to uncover much more" in a more thorough investigation and issue a clear interpretation on how the act should be applied.

He added that the commissioner is currently reviewing Canada's access to information system in comparison to other countries worldwide, providing a good opportunity for such an investigation.

The groups allege in a newly-released 26-page report that "federal civil servants in Canada, and in particular, scientists, are being muzzled by the federal government:"

Directly, by not being allowed to speak to the media.

Indirectly, through bureaucratic procedures that delay approval to speak to the media – delays that are incompatible with journalists’ deadlines.

The report also alleges that the government is “manipulating the release of government information” by:

Selecting which media inquiries to respond to.

Having communications employees craft “approved lines” or provide scripted answers for civil servants to deliver.

Using “subtle means of intimidation” when civil servants speak directly to the media, such as requiring an interview to be recorded or requiring a communications employee to sit in on the interview.

The report examines communications policy changes and their consequences at Environment Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources Canada and the National Research Council and concludes that “there is a clear and significant trend showing that the federal government is closing off access to government information by tightly controlling and monitoring the release of government information to the public.”

The report adds that it is "even more alarming" that the government has ignored international criticism "and seems intent on continuing down this path."

The report was based on internal government documents previously released through freedom of information requests, along with conversations with current and former federal public servants, journalists, members of non-profit organizations, and professors at Canadian universities.

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