It's been seven years since the conservative Canadian government led by prime minister Stephen Harper started to put muzzles on federal employees who stray from the script when talking to the media. This prominently includes scientists and other researchers who might have opinions on interesting things, such as the nation's energy policies, wildlife and land management, climate trends, medical research priorities, and some things that are interesting just because they are interesting including odd animal behavior or astronomy or autocratic psychological syndromes.
Nonetheless it remains a shock every time when reading again how deeply into its government institutions has penetratede the fervor to put barriers between scientists and reporters or other members of the public. Knight trackers have of course taken note of the disarray in scientists' freedom to talk directly with the Canadia public before (including posts by Deb Blum (here), Paul Raeburn (here), and yours truly (here).
For the lastest north of the border, try this excellent rundown:
- Macleans – Jonathan Gatehouse: When science goes silent; With the muzzling of scientists, Harper's obsession with controlling the message verges on the Orwellian; Would have been stronger had the opening vignette not featured an anonymous protagonist. Offsetting that – the fellow told the reporter he did not want to get fired for talking about the risk of getting fired if he spoke with the press.
It's tough enough for reporters in the US who, since the second Bush was in office and continuing at an appreciable level under Obama, are told that a p.r. person will have to sit in on any interview one might want to have. I once had the damnedest time getting to speak just one-on-one with an astronomer looking for planets circling other stars. Now, there's a policy minefield! But at least we down here tend to get a strong portion of the interviews reasonably promptly. In Canada one is lucky to get a nanny-sat interview within weeks of a request which might as well be never.
One can so easily remember the lessons we learned as Americans how different things are in lands with no freedom – places where government minders listen to one's conversations, and people can get fired or even jailed for simply speaking their mind without a signed pass from the secret police. I always figured Canadians were fellow travelers in the freedom boat. Looks like that vessel is starting to ride a little lower in the water. At least, so far, one doesn't read of any reporters or publishers up north arrested for printing what their beleaguered sources slipped past, or bravely openly defied, the censors in command.
The MacLeans story simply declares that muzzling is underway. Other recent stories tend to state it with a real or implied question mark. A sampling of such reports on Canada's chill toward scientific staffs’ freedom of speech:
- VICE – Stephen Buranyi: Stephen Harper Needs to Stop Gagging Canadian Scientists ; author's a biochemist.
- AAAS ScienceInsider – Wayne Kondro: Canadian Official to Investigate Allegations That Government Scientists Are Being Muzzled ;
- PRI Living on Earth (transcript) Steve Curwood: Canadian Government Gag Order for Scientists?
- Globe and Mail – Tamsyn Burgmann: Ottawa 'muzzling' scientists, panel tells global research community .
- BBC – Pallab Ghosh: Has Canada's government been muzzling its scientists?
- Postmedia News – Margaret Munro: Scientist calls new confidentiality rules on Arctic project 'chilling' ;
- – Michael Harris: New policy gives government power to muzzle DFO scientists ; This one says the political watchdogs can even demand that gov't scientists get their permission slip for every paper in journals of which they are author or co-author.
- Toronto Star (Op-Ed) Jeffrey Hutchings: Harper government's muzzling of scientists a mark of shame for Canada ;