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Obama government allows scientists to speak freely, while federal Conservatives muzzle them like Bush did

Group’s launches Open Government Action Alert to help Canadians send letters to key politicians across Canada calling for stronger laws and enforcement

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

OTTAWA – Today, Democracy Watch launched a national campaign for changes to strengthen open government laws and enforcement systems across Canada, and called for a full investigation by the Information Commissioner, as it released its report on the lack of freedom of government employees to speak with the public and journalists, produced in partnership with the Environmental Law Clinic of the University of Victoria.

As the report details, in contrast to President Obama who issued a policy that says government scientists can speak freely about the results of their research, the federal Conservatives have muzzled government scientists in the same way former U.S. President George W. Bush did.

“Federal government scientists and government employees are having to jump through hoops and are sometimes prevented from speaking openly to reporters in a timely manner just like scientists were in George W. Bush’s government, in contrast to the Obama government which has issued a policy making it clear that government employees are allowed to speak freely and publicly about their research,” said Tyler Sommers, Coordinator of Democracy Watch and Chairperson of the Open Government Coalition.

Government secrecy is not just a federal government problem, and so Democracy Watch and the national Open Government Coalition it coordinates launched its national Open Government Action Alert which makes it easy for Canadians to send a letter to the federal Information Commissioner (who is currently consulting the public on needed changes to the federal Access to Information Act), and to key politicians across Canada, calling for changes to strengthen open government laws and enforcement in every jurisdiction.

“Many changes are needed to close loopholes in open government laws across Canada to ensure that Canadians have easy and timely access to the information they have paid for and have a right to know, but to win these changes many more voters must send a letter to their politicians letting them know they won’t vote for them unless they make the changes needed to end dangerously undemocratic and excessive government secrecy,” said Sommers.

Systemic problems in the federal government were revealed recently by Canada’s Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, who publicly criticized Canada’s access to information system highlighting that fewer requests were answered within 30 days in 2011-12 than during the previous year and about 15 percent of applications were being responded to late, even though government departments are able to grant themselves lengthy extensions.

In response to the many loopholes that exist in the access to information laws across Canada, and the lack of enforcement and lack of audits to ensure people are following the law in some jurisdictions, and, Democracy Watch and the Open Government Coalition call for the following 8 key changes:

  1. any type of record created by any entity that receives significant funding from or is connected to the government, or was created by the government and fulfills public interest functions, should be automatically covered by access to information laws and systems (as in the United Kingdom);
  2. all exemptions under access to information law should be discretionary, and limited by a proof of harm test and a public interest override (as in B.C. and Alberta);
  3. the access to information law and system should require every entity covered (as in the United Kingdom, U.S., Australia and New Zealand): to create detailed records for all decisions and actions and factual and policy research; to routinely disclose records that are required to be disclosed; to assign responsibility to individuals for the creation and maintenance of each record, and; to maintain each record so that it remains easily accessible;
  4. the access to information law and system should allow anyone who does factual or policy research for the government to speak to the media and publicly about the topic;
  5. severe penalties should be created for not creating records, for not maintaining records properly, and for unjustifiable delays in responses to requests;
  6. the Information Commissioner should be given explicit powers under the access to information: to order the release of a record (as in the United Kingdom, Ontario, B.C. and Quebec); to penalize violators of the law, and; to require systemic changes in government departments to improve compliance (as in the United Kingdom);
  7. funding to the access to information system and enforcement should be increased to solve backlog problems instead of increasing administrative barriers, and fees for access should be lower overall and standardized, and;
  8. Parliament must be required to review the ATI Act every 5 years to ensure that problem areas are corrected.

The report produced by Democracy Watch in partnership with the Environmental Law Clinic of the University of Victoria involved access to information requests, conversations with non-profit and charitable organization representatives, and interviews with current and former public servants.  It highlights access to information policy changes and their consequences at Environment Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources Canada, the National Research Council, and other federal government departments.

The report details several situations where changes to information policies prevented scientists from commenting on research or responding to questions from the media until after journalists had already completed and published their articles, and also situations where public servants discussed the “tone” they believed the article would take prior to deciding whether to allow scientists to speak with journalists.  It also showcases the general trend toward limiting information in Canada vs. the increase in freedom and openness in the United States.

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Tyler Sommers, Coordinator of Democracy Watch and Chairperson of the Open Government Coalition
Tel: (613) 241-5179
[email protected]

Democracy Watch’s Open Government Campaign


U.S. Government Policy

After President Barack Obama was elected in 2009 he instructed federal agencies to develop “scientific integrity policies” to outline guidelines for scientists and other civil servants to follow when interacting with the media.  In late 2011, the U.S. National Science Foundation and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued such integrity policies which not only allow scientists to speak freely with the media, but allows them to actively approach such interaction.

Findings by federal Canadian government department

Environment Canada

Implemented the Media Relations Policy in November 2007 requiring “Media Relations Headquarters” to “Coordinate all media calls coming into the department.”  Upon receiving a media call the individual is to inform their immediate supervisor or media relations contact who will then inform them of the best way to handle the call including “asking the program expert to respond with approved lines, having Media Relations respond, [or] referring the call to the Minister’s Office.”  Environment Canada clarified this system with the following points:

  •  “All media requests – including interviews with Environment Canada scientists – are routed through the media relations team. A media relations officer then liaises with the appropriate official to identify the right spokesperson to respond to the request.”
  • “On other calls [any calls other than routine inquiries for weather information], EC [Environment Canada]must consult the Minister’s office and obtain approval before proceeding with providing responses to reporters.”
  • “…media relations provides a proposed response and recommendations to the minister’s office for approval as to whether an interview will be scheduled or
    a written response will be provided.”

In action this policy has led to the inability of scientists to speak about the work that they conducted, including preventing Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick from speaking about his research titled “Unprecedented Arctic ozone loss in 2011” in the fall of 2011 until two weeks after the report was released when all news stories on the subject had been published without comments from Mr. Tarasick.

It resulted in scientists attending the International Polar Year 2012 conference in Montreal being told, if approached by journalists, to “ask them for their business card and tell them you will get back to them with a time for [an] interview” and that Media Relations would schedule and attend any interviews. Media relations employees were also sent to shadow Canadian government scientists who attended the conference to monitor and record their conversations.

The policy also resulted in scientists attending the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 32nd Annual Meeting in Boston to be issued a “Q&A Package” containing 20 expected questions and the answers to be given by designated spokespersons and directions to respond to some questions with “I’m a scientist.  I’m not in a position to answer that question, but I’d be happy to refer you to the appropriate spokesperson.”

In 2010, under access to information, an internal Environment Canada document examining the effects of the Media Relations Policy was released.  According to the document:

  • Scientists noticed a major decline in the number of media requests they received;
  • Media coverage of climate change science reduced by over 80 percent;
  • Scientists were very frustrated with the new process, feeling the intent was to prevent them from speaking to the media;
  • There was a widespread perception among Canadian media that Environment Canada scientists were being muzzled.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans

The communications policies for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans are outlined in the National Media Relations and Spokesperson Policy.  According to this policy communications staff should be the “first point of contact for media” and emphasizes the involvement of communications prior to interviews regarding certain “high profile” or “controversial” issues.  Examples of these issues include oil and gas industry issues, seal fishery issues, aboriginal issues, Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization related issues, and cod fishery issues.  Communications dictates whether or not responses will be provided and who the spokesperson will be providing no guidelines for how these decisions are made.

In practice this policy prevented Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist Kristi Miller from discussing her research examining sockeye salmon populations in rapid decline as the Privy Council Office would not grant Miller permission to speak about her research because of the Cohen Commission – a judicial inquiry ordered by Prime Minister Harper to look into the decline of the salmon.  She was eventually permitted to speak about her research months later, testifying at the Commission.

Natural Resources Canada

In March 2010 Natural Resources Canada implemented a new media relations policy, which was described by the western regional communications manager for NRC: “we have new media interview procedures that require pre-approval of certain types of interview requests by the minister’s office.”

In April 2010 Scott Dallimore and a team of scientists published a study about a colossal flood that had occurred in northern Canada almost 13,000 years ago, however when journalists attempted to contact Dallimore they were told he was required to receive pre-approval from the Minister of Natural Resources.  Dallimore attempted to tell Communications that the study was not politically sensitive and that it had no anticipated links to minerals, energy, or anthropogenic climate change, however staff insisted on pre-approval.  Eventually approval was granted, but not until after the deadlines for journalists had passed and stories had been published.

National Research Council

In March 2012, Tom Spears, a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen was gathering information for a story on regional snowfall patterns and came across a joint project between NASA and Canada’s National Research Council.  Spears contacted NASA and was able to speak directly to a scientist about the project, when he contacted the National Research Council to request an interview he received a response a day after his acknowledged deadline consisting of five bullet points lacking even basic information about the projects goals.  He filed access to information requests to learn what happened behind the scenes and found documents showing a day long public relations ordeal that involved 11 government employees and over 50 emails discussing whether an interview was necessary and the “tone” of the request.

Other cases

In the fall of 2012 an extensive beef recall was issued after meat tainted with E. coli bacteria was discovered in an Alberta food packing plant.  George Da Pont, president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency attended a live interview to discuss the government’s handling of the recall, but was interrupted mid-sentence and taken away from cameras by Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.

In April 2011 the Ottawa Citizen published an article about the Department of National Defence’s handling of taxpayer dollars and called for a hunt for source documents.  The article prompted official to issue a directive to all Canadian Forces members as well as civilian employees directing them to give all papers that crossed their desk a second glance with an eye to keeping it hidden.