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Canadian journalists say Trump's 'gag order' on EPA, USDA scientists is all too familiar

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Canadian journalists say Trump's 'gag order' on EPA, USDA scientists is all too familiar

Watch  | A good portion of the internet erupted in disbelief Tuesday when it was revealed that Donald Trump’s administration had placed a “gag order” on multiple government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

'Gag orders' on multiple agencies

The Huffington Post reported

 Tuesday that multiple U.S. government agencies had barred their employees and scientists from communicating with the public and the press.

Staffers at the EPA, for example, received a memo instructing them not to issue any press releases, blog posts, or social media posts. Similar so-called “gag orders” were placed on the science arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services.


Déjà vu for Canadians

The news was upsetting to many, particularly American journalists. On Twitter, many expressed disbelief that the public might not be able to receive information from those agencies.

But for one group of people in particular, the reaction was less disbelief and more déjà vu. Those people were Canadian journalists, who were reminded of restrictive policies their former Prime Minister Stephen Harper placed on government scientists while he was in office.

Canadian journos: We've seen this before

"It’s remarkably, frighteningly similar to what's happening in the U.S.," Tom Henheffer, executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, told Circa.

Under Harper's regime in Canada -- which extended from 2006 to 2015 -- Henheffer said government scientists were effectively barred from talking to the news media.


A 'dark age' for journalism

"It was a dark age for journalism in Canada," Henheffer said. "Government officials wouldn’t talk to the press. Canadians had no idea what was going on with environmental science." 

During Harper's reign, Henheffer's group regularly decried what it called a nationwide “muzzling” of federal scientists. Harper's administration had fired more than 2,000 scientists, and the ones who were still employed were mostly restricted from talking to the media.


Like Harper, Trump also wants to cut research

Henheffer told Circa he sees the Trump administration paving a similar course. Trump's team has already indicated it would like to significantly cut scientific research at EPA, NASA, and other agencies, which would inevitably see job cuts for scientists.

And if Tuesday's so-called "gag order" continues, those remaining scientists may have limited access to the media. "Incoming media requests will be carefully screened," a memo sent to current EPA staff reads.

"The censorship of science has begun," Slate journalist Eric Holthaus tweeted.

What does it mean?

Henheffer said the impact of Harper's policies was that it was much harder to do environmental and science journalism in Canada. Civil servants, he said, were "afraid and unwilling" to speak to journalists.

"Before Harper, and as it stands now, you could just pick up the phone and call a civil servant and they’d talk to you," he said. "Under Harper, you’d call a civil servant and they’d say no, you have to talk to our PR people. Then you'd never hear anything back."

'More draconian' under Trump?

Nick Taylor-Vaisey, an editor at Maclean's and president at Canadian Association of Journalists, largely agreed with Hanheffer.  "There was a culture of muzzling scientists in Canada which we're now sort of crawling out from in the Trudeau era," he said, referring to Canada's new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

And what's happening in America, Taylor-Vaisey said, "maybe even looks a little more draconian that what we saw here."

Journalism will prevail

But one thing Taylor-Vaisey disagreed with was that journalism went through a "dark age" under Harper. It may have been harder to do reporting on government science, he said, but journalists prevailed.

"What journalists produced in that period of time was extraordinary. It was not a dark age for journalism -- It was a dark age for government relations with journalists," he said. "But reporters did the same quality of work that they always did. It was just harder to get there."

 'The last lines of defense'

Taylor-Vaisey said he expects the same from American journalists if Trump's team does follow the Harper government's lead.

"I would think that if American journalists are anything like Canadian journalists, this will not be a dark age for journalism for the next 4 or 8 years," he said. "It will be 4 or 8 years where journalists distinguish themselves as one of the last lines of defense of the public interest in an era when government clamps down on communications."

'A really, really rough four years'

Henheffer's message to American journalists was a bit less optimistic.

"You guys are in for a really, really rough four years," he said.

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WATCH  | For more news you need, check out our 60 Second Circa.

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