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Information Commissioner launches “muzzling” probe

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has announced that she is launching an investigation into the “muzzling” of scientists.

The announcement comes in response to a letter sent by the non-partisan citizen advocacy group Democracy Watch and The Environmental Law Centre (ELC) at the University of Victoria earlier this year. The letter included a 126-page report signed by ELC Legal Director Calvin Sandborn that called to attention several instances in which communication between scientists and media had been delayed, discouraged or prohibited.

There are few issues more fundamental to democracy than the ability of the public to access scientific information produced by government scientists—information that their tax dollars have paid for. We as a society cannot make informed choices about critical issues if we are not fully informed about the facts,” the letter argued.

In a March 27 letter to Sandborn, assistant information commissioner Emily McCarthy wrote that notice of the investigation has been sent to seven separate government agencies, including:

  • The Ministry of the Environment
  • Department of Fisheries and Oceans
  • Department of Natural Resources
  • Department of National Defence
  • National Research Council of Canada
  • Canadian Food Inspection Agency
  • The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat

According to McCarthy, the latter is included in the complaint because of “its role in relation to the development and implementation of government policies.”

In February, Legault told CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition that the Harper administration is “not the most transparent.”

“We are at a record low in terms of timeliness,” she said. “The percentage of information being disclosed is also low.” 

Democracy Watch Coordinator Tyler Sommers announced, “We’re very pleased with the fact that this investigation has been called and we will continue to push the Information Commissioner to get to the bottom of this situation, publicly release the results, and push the federal government to change these policies. We will also continue to push for the democratic changes to we need to Canada’s access to information law.”

The author of the original report, law student Clayton Greenwood, says many of his subjects had misgivings about speaking openly about their experiences. He hopes that this investigation will give scientists the freedom they need to express themselves.

“There were concerns of getting fired,” he says. “With all these job cuts and budget cuts, there aren’t a whole lot of government scientists now that are going to come out publicly and criticize the government's policies. On the contrary, the commissioner has the power, similar to judges, to compell a testamony from a scientist under oath. That's a guarantee that people are going to be able to speak truthfully about this.

Although he acknowledges that the commissioner’s powers are limited, he believes that her report to parliament will get the truth into the public eye.

“We feel that these sorts of policies can only exist if nobody knows about them, if they're done quietly behind the scenes,” he says. “Our primary goal from all this is just to get all this information out there. Then we feel that the public will put enough pressure for them to have to make a change.”

Image Credit: NASA ICE via Flickr

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