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July-August 2009

Are Environment Canada gatekeepers gagging their own scientists?

Craig SaundersWebsite

Toronto journalist Janet Pelley got a shock last February while attending a symposium in Burlington, Ont., on water quality research. After a session on Bisphenol-A, she approached two of the researchers who had presented for follow-up information. The researchers “laughed nervously,” says Pelley, then pointed her to an Environment Canada press officer in the corner. “I definitely felt that the scientists were afraid to be seen talking to me,” she adds. The press officer told her she’d have to file a request with the communications office in Ottawa before she could talk to the researchers who had just presented.

Pelley is just one of many journalists who have run up against the federal department’s new communications policy, which restricts how government researchers may interact with reporters. At the very least, the new policy is causing frustrating delays. At its worst, according to both reporters and ministry staff, the new policy is causing a chill among researchers and is keeping the public from hearing about Canadian environmental research.

This year-old policy requires reporters to request interviews through a central office in Ottawa, “to ensure that requests for information by the media are responded to quickly, accurately and in a consistent manner across Canada,” explains an email from the department’s communications office.

Previously, researchers were free to discuss their research and reporters normally went directly to these experts for information. Both the Environment Canada head of communications and its minister, Jim Prentice, refused interview requests for this story.

The situation is painful enough that some reporters have started turning to researchers from other countries, rather than face delays from Environment Canada. In April, the 1,500-member Society of Environmental Journalists wrote to the minister to express their frustration that the department had not responded to their concerns and to ask the department to change its policy. “The new policy shows a lack of commitment to government transparency and obstructs the public’s access to information,” said the letter, which was co-signed by a number of organizations including the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and the U.S. National Association of Science Writers.

Opposition environment critics David McGuinty and Linda Duncan both say this is just one part of a government-wide campaign by the Conservatives to block access to information, adding that they’re facing similar problems at the Parliamentary committee level.

“They ran on openness and transparency,” says an exasperated McGuinty. “There’s no reason in the world why officials shouldn’t be able to speak.”

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