One of the complaints coming out of the Stand up for Science rallies in 17 cities across Canada today is the decreased communication between journalists and Canada’s environmental scientists.
In an effort to reshape the public role and voice of Environment Canada, a 2007 report called for all employees to come together as ‘one department’ with ‘one voice.’ This report initiated change at Environment Canada, which created a new policy on how to handle media requests for information. All media inquiries were from then on sent through a vetting process that is overseen and controlled by a public relations staff selected by the Harper government.
This staff is responsible for speaking on behalf of Environment Canada, ensuring consistency in the government message, handling requests for interviews, overseeing the interview process, and creating scripted media lines – a message that is offered to media outlets when access to relevant scientists is denied or unavailable.
This change was made to create “an overall sense of media activity coming in or going out of [the] department,” and a cohesive departmental voice, according to the report released to Environment Canada staff.
Before this protocol, scientists carrying out studies for the Canadian government could talk to media about their findings without government approval.
The process now limits what is revealed.
When dealing with a controversial topic Environment Canada will limit access to scientific findings and the researchers behind these studies. Since 2007, many examples of this have been found.
In 2011, David Tarasick, scientist for Environment Canada, was withheld from the media after his research team found a massive hole in the Arctic ozone. Mary Waiser, a Canadian water researcher, found and published information about chemicals and pharmaceuticals downstream from a Regina sewage plant. She was also made unavailable to the media for comment. A group of researchers attending the 2012 Polar Year conference in Montreal, highlighting international arctic research, were followed by the media relations staff as they interacted with reporters covering the event.
An open-letter addressed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper stressed the mounting concerns of organizations such as the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression surrounding the current relationship between the media and Environment Canada.
“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 states. “Delays in obtaining interviews are often unacceptable and journalists are routinely denied 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.”
It is the concern of these organizations that what is being released to the media and made publicly available is shaped into a view favoured by the Harper government. While what may be condemning, but still essential to public knowledge is withheld. A process the advocacy group Evidence for Democracy, who has organized the Canada-wide events today, calls undemocratic.
Through the Stand up for Science rallies, Evidence for Democracy looks to “ensure that the best available scientific knowledge and evidence is used to inform decisions that affect the health and prosperity of Canadians.”
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