Canadian government obstructs journalists’ access

Writing in Nature News, Kathryn O’Hara celebrates Right to Know Week by declaring that “the information policies of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper are muzzling scientists in their dealings with the media.” She paints a picture that should be painfully familiar to those who deal with American federal agencies or have followed the recent work of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee.

Margaret Munro, a science reporter for PostmediaNews, has uncovered that a policy enacted in March stipulates that all federal scientists must get pre-approval from their minister’s office before speaking to journalists who represent national or international media. The pre-approval process requires time-consuming drafting of questions and answers, scrutinized by as many as seven people, before a scientist can be given the go-ahead by the minister’s staff. This is to spare the minister ‘any surprises’.

O’Hara, president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, provides some distressing examples, including the systematic burying of climate change research and the odd case of a report on a 13,000-year-old flood that broke outside of Canada, because Canadian journalists didn’t have access to the sources.

Scientists in departments that deal with natural resources, health, fisheries and oceans have also felt the pinch of the muzzle. Consequently, Canadians learn little about the results of their wider government science, at least first-hand. Media clearance can take four or five days — ridiculous in a 24/7 news world. And because of the delays, research led by Canadian scientists is regularly channelled through international collaborators and released through their agencies.

All this message micromanagement is even more remarkable, O’Hara writes, given Harper’s past pledges to maintain a transparent government, and to get Canadians excited about science. Canadian journalists are calling for better access to federal researchers, a position that echoes that of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee and other American journalism groups.

The Canadian Science Writers’ Association in Toronto is asking for timely access to federal scientists whose research is published in journals or presented at conferences open to the media. Our journalists need to speak with scientists to avoid misinterpretation of research. And, as journalists around the world will testify, scientists usually avoid politics and steer clear of policy-sensitive discussions. Canada’s researchers are no different.

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