Watchdog to probe University of Victoria law centre’s complaint that scientists are muzzled

Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has agreed to investigate a complaint by the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre that federal scientists are being muzzled.

The investigation request, made in February jointly with the non-profit Democracy Watch, said the Harper government is preventing the media and public from obtaining information from scientists. It says policies designed to prevent scientists from speaking freely are undermining democracy.

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A report by law student Clayton Greenwood, submitted with the request, looked at how media requests for information are funnelled through government communications staff and how ministries decide which reporters they will speak to and which ones will be blacklisted.

Greenwood’s report also detailed how departments such as Fisheries and Oceans flag requests for information on “controversial issues” such as the oil and gas industry or aboriginal concerns.

A letter to Calvin Sandborn, Environmental Law Centre legal director, from Emily McCarthy, assistant information commissioner, says the complaint falls within the commissioner’s scope under the Access to Information Act.

“The Commissioner has concluded that, to the extent that your complaint alleges that the right of access to information under the Act is impeded by government policies, practices or guidelines that restrict or prohibit government scientists from speaking with the media and the Canadian public, your complaint falls within the scope . . . of the Act.”

A notice of the investigation has been sent to the Environment Department, Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources, the National Research Council of Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Department of National Defence, the letter says.

The Treasury Board is also included because of its role in policy development.

The federal government has faced increasing criticism, both nationally and internationally, for refusing to let scientists speak about their findings.

Last year, an open letter was sent to Prime Minister Stephen Harper by groups including the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, World Federation of Science Journalists and the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, complaining about excessive government control of scientific information.

“Over the past four years, journalists and scientists alike have exposed the disturbing practices of the Canadian government in denying journalists timely access to government scientists,” it says.

“Federal scientists in Canada are still not allowed to speak to reporters without the consent of media-relations officers.”

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