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Government muzzles its scientists, says Canadian Journalists for Free Expression

Scientists Shiv Chopra, Margaret Haydon and Gérard Lambert were honoured with CJFE Integrity Awards last year for their work as whistleblowers: they were pressured to approve veterinary drugs they felt put Canadians' food safety at risk
Scientists Shiv Chopra, Margaret Haydon and Gérard Lambert were honoured with CJFE Integrity Awards last year for their work as whistleblowers: they were pressured to approve veterinary drugs they felt put Canadians' food safety at risk

CJFE

When Canadian scientist David Tarasick published findings about one of the largest ozone holes ever discovered above the Arctic in the journal "Nature" last fall, the federal government barred him from speaking to journalists about it.

Kristina Miller was similarly prevented from granting interviews about her own research into a virus that might explain the decline of British Columbia's sockeye salmon.

The incidents represent a trend of "muzzling" policies being imposed on Canadian scientists by federal agencies under the Conservative government, say Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and five organisations that represent science writers. In an open letter, the groups are jointly calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to "tear down the wall that separates scientists, journalists and the public."

"Despite promises that your majority government would follow principles of accountability and transparency, federal scientists in Canada are still not allowed to speak to reporters without the 'consent' of media relations officers," the letter says.

It adds that far too frequently, journalists encounter "unacceptable" delays and denials for interviews.

"Increasingly, journalists have simply given up trying to access federal scientists, while scientists at work in federal departments are under undue pressure in an atmosphere dominated by political messaging."

The letter was released at the same time that a panel of international peers at a global science conference raised similar concerns in Vancouver on 17 February.

"It's pretty clear that for federal scientists, Ottawa decides now if the researchers can talk, what they can talk about and when they can say it," senior science journalist Margaret Munro, with Postmedia News, told a group gathered at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting. "We're not talking about state secrets here."

Munro, who's worked in the field for more than 30 years, said news coverage of publicly funded science has plummeted in the years since the Conservatives took office in 2006.

"We used to have a very open system of government, where the scientists were actually free to discuss their research with the media," she said. "But it's now become a very closed system with government taking media and message control to sometimes quite incredible extremes."

According to "The Globe and Mail", Environment Canada's protocol for dealing with media stipulates that all media requests be streamlined through agency headquarters, which diverts replies from being answered by the scientist themselves - instead supplying "approved lines" or contact with the minister's office only.

CJFE and the other groups are suggesting that Canada follow the U.S.'s lead. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration now encourages scientists to speak to the media without any intermediary, and even express their own opinions so long as they indicate they aren't speaking on behalf of their employer.

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