Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Parody of political paranoia

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The anecdotes of muzzled federal government scientists in a report by the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Clinic are so absurd as to be parody of political paranoia. Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault needs to decide whether they are isolated incidents or symptomatic of a scheme by the Harper government to keep Canadians in the dark on important findings funded by their tax dollars.

The media policy implemented by the federal Tories gives lip service to the critical role the news media play in a democracy. In reality, the edict that all messages and information must be vetted by media specialists on instruction from political offices speaks for itself. It curbs the free and impartial flow of information.

Some subjects are controversial -- Ottawa is protective of science relating to climate change and the oilsands. But preventing a Natural Resources scientist from speaking to a reporter about his discovery of a 13,000-year-old colossal flood in northern Canada is near comical.

Message control extends beyond barring access or delaying responses so long that news value is eclipsed, the clinic's report claims. One scientist was denied the ability to speak to a journalist about his report on the growth of the ozone hole over the Arctic; a media relations unit, in consultation with political offices, provided responses in his name without his input. Scientists at public conferences were warned not to speak to reporters and followed by government media types to ensure compliance.

The Harper government insists it is open, giving statistics to show the frequency of interviews granted. But the authoritarian nature of the federal policy is made clear in contrast to that of the Obama administration, which leaves it to agencies to write their own policies, respecting the integrity of scientists to speak for their own work.

The Harper government's approach is government-wide, but the muzzling of scientists best illustrates the audacity of an administration that acts like it knows the material better than the authors and implies it fears giving citizens access to unvarnished data and information that has not been washed by the political machinery.

The policy is undoubtedly obstructionist. Legault's bigger job is to assess whether it is deliberately designed to suppress and hide information for expressly political purposes. Ultimately, her office can only recommend, not order, the government to make amends. The government's co-operation and compliance with the review will be telling.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2013 A14

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