Today is the beginning of Freedom to Read Week, “an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
To many Canadians, censorship and the suppression of ideas is something that mostly happens in other countries. But recently, scientists, journalists, and science writers in Canada have been sounding the alarm over systematic policies by the Canadian federal government to restrict the communication of scientific findings and thinking to the general public.
To draw attention to the crisis, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently held a panel discussion called Unmuzzling Government Scientists: How to Re-Open the Discourse at its annual meeting in Vancouver on February 17. (Despite its name, the AAAS is an international organization dedicated to advancing science around the world.)
The entire panel discussion can be viewed here, and it is chilling. In the video, scientists and journalists discuss how governments have succumbed to pressure from corporate interests to suppress the dissemination of scientific results. Margaret Munro, a journalist with Postmedia News, relates how journalists and science writers used to have an open relationship with scientists working for Canadian federal agencies. This changed very quickly after November 2007, when Environment Canada put in place a set of policies to ensure that “just as we have one department, one website, we should have one department, one voice.” It was clear that this voice should be dictated from the top. Scientists working for Environment Canada are now disallowed from participating in any interviews that have not been cleared by media relations staff. The great majority of requests for interviews by journalists are not granted—instead, journalists get an email containing a pre-approved response or statement. When interviews are granted, a media officer must be present, and the interview is recorded, hardly a situation that encourages scientists to speak freely. Since Environment Canada has adopted these policies, there has been an 80% decline in the amount of media coverage of issues relating to global warming. And a number of federal agencies since then have adopted similar policies regarding the communications that their scientists are permitted to have with the outside world.
Another member of the panel, Francesca Grifo, spoke on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States. She talked about how Bush-era policies led to similar muzzling of scientists in the U.S., even resulting in abuses where the scientific reports of government scientists were re-written without the scientists’ approval to reflect a position favoured by the government—including reports that directly impacted public health, such as testing children’s products for lead content. With systematic documentation and organized political pressure, the situation in the United States has begun to change. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. counterpart to Environment Canada, now has in place specific policies that allow scientists to hold interviews without prior approval, and to express their own opinions and interpretations unhindered by the agency.
The Canadian policies are a blight on intellectual freedom, and seriously undermine the rights and abilities of the public to make informed choices, whether about their governance, or even their own health. In 2011, the Canadian Science Writers’ Association published an open letter to the government to draw attention to the issue; this letter went unheeded. On February 16, the CSWA sent another letter to the Prime Minister’s Office. You can read the letter here.
The WGA will be drafting a letter as well, calling for a change in the policies that stifle the communication of scientific ideas to the public. We encourage you to also take an individual stand and send your own letter in support of your freedom to read about important scientific discoveries that affect all Canadians.