Beginning in 2007, the Harper government implemented a new media relations policy that prevents Environment Canada scientists from speaking freely with the media, unless they obtain clearance from the Ministry of Environment. When clearance is granted, it is often too late for the information to remain of interest to the press. The public only learned of this protocol because it was leaked by an anonymous Environment Canada employee.
Prior to 2007, Environment Canada scientists could speak freely with the press. They would be contacted by the media and could discuss the topic at hand based on their own scientific research and expertise.
Between November 2007 and February 2008, a new media relations policy regarding how scientists interact with the press was implemented by the Harper government. A powerpoint presentation was leaked to the press, explaining the new protocol to Environment Canada employees.
Now, scientists must alert both their supervisor as well as a social communicator (a type of public relations representative) when they are contacted by the press. Scientists must then receive pre-approval from the Minister of Environment before responding to the media’s inquiries. Questions and answers must also be pre-approved by communication officers. After interviews, scientists must fill out a report regarding the content of the interview.
If the media contacts the government directly for an interview with a given scientist, the government often refuses, but then calls back the media a few weeks later to announce that the scientist is available. However, by this time, the press deadlines have passed. This is the experience that many journalists deal with according to Margaret Munro, a senior journalist with Postmedia News.
Impacts on multiple issues
The Harper government’s media relations policy, though originally aimed at controlling how Canadian scientists comment on climate issues, has also affected their ability to speak on other subjects. For instance, on April 1st 2008, National Research Council (NRC) scientist Scott Dallimore co-authored an article about floods which took place in Northern Canada 13,000 years ago. His article received international attention. The Harper government then told Dallimore to wait for clearance before further promoting his findings. Dallimore was not able to receive his clearance in time to respond to media inquiries.
“If you can’t get access to a nice, feel-good science story about flooding at the end of last glaciation, can you imagine trying to get access to scientists with information about cadmium and mercury in the Athabasca River? Absolutely impossible,” said Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria.
The Harper government’s restrictions on the ability of scientists to speak to the press have also impacted high-profile announcements. For instance, in 2008, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) was prevented from announcing that Canada’s first mission to Mars had discovered that it snows on the red planet. NASA ended up making the announcement without the CSA, despite the mission’s success, years of mission planning, and $37 million invested by Canadian taxpayers.
Frustration for scientists and journalists
Environment Canada said its scientists feel very frustrated at the policy of preventing them from speaking to the media, reported La Presse. “They lost confidence in the system, which according to them, does not correspond to the media’s needs.” Many scientists therefore hesitate to give interviews to avoid the bureaucratic red tape.
In June 2008, frustrated scientists attended a large conference in Toronto to voice their discontent at the new protocol.
Journalists have expressed their own frustration with the government’s restrictions on access to scientists. The media relations policy has forced journalists to look elsewhere for reliable information on issues like climate change, such as to scientific organizations and universities in the United States.
The Harper government has stated that its goal is not to silence scientists, but rather to create a uniform media position across Canada. “Just as we have ‘one department, one website’ we should have ‘one department, one voice’,” states the PowerPoint presentation given to Environment Canada employees. Gregory Jack, acting director of Environment Canada’s ministerial and executive services, further commented that “the policy is meant to bring Environment Canada in line with other federal departments.”
However, many scientists believe that the media relations policy reflects the Harper government's fear of climate change research being exposed. "I suspect the federal government would prefer that its scientists don't discuss research that points out just how serious the climate change challenge is" said Professor Thomas Pederson from the University of Victoria.
In April 2011, major Canadian organizations for science and journalism harshly criticized environment Minister Peter Kent for the media relations policy. "Would the Peter Kent whose work on the challenges found in American inner cities and was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, not be telling his colleagues in the cabinet that a free press is one of the foundations of a democracy, and freedom means that Canadian scientists must be free to talk to Canadian journalists?"
Since the social relations protocol was implemented, the Harper government has been accused of numerous attempts to prevent public debate on environmental issues. See, for instance, the cases of Kairos, the Sierra Club of BC, and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences.
- 2007-2008: The Harper government implements a new media relations policy, limiting free communication between the press and Environment Canada scientists.
- 2008: Scientists begin receiving clearance to speak with the media too late for coverage of everything from ancient floods to mars missions to climate change. Scientists and journalists express frustration at the policy.
- 2007-2010: Media coverage on climate change drops by 80%.
- April 2011: Major science and journalism organizations harshly criticize Environment Minister Peter Kent for abandoning the principles of free speech that he once lauded as a journalist.
Role or Position
Environment Canada is an official government body that aims to coordinate environmental programs and policies, preserve the environment and natural resources, and enforce environmental regulations. It employs more than 7,000 scientists in fields including biology, climatology, engineering, chemistry, library science, law, commerce and more.
Implications and Consequences
- Free Speech: By requiring the Harper government’s clearance before addressing the press, Environment Canada scientists lost their ability to freely discuss their findings with the media, and thus fulfill their mandate of keeping the Canadian public fully informed about important issues like climate change.
- Democracy: Preventing scientists from communicating freely with the media diminishes the extent to which the public can be well-informed about scientific issues, including science related to the environment and climate change. As such, the public is less able to hold Canada’s elected representatives, including the Prime Minister and Environment Minister, to account.
- Democracy: In a democracy, the government serves the people. When the government tries to prevent people from knowing what it is doing by putting up barriers to prevent scientists from communicating with the press, our democracy suffers.
- Transparency: Civil servants are paid by the public to provide information and services that benefit the public. A loss of information about key issues reduces transparency in government decision-making.
Photo: One Blue Marble