WCSJ: The muzzling of government scientists

I’m at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar where scientists, journalists and science press officers from around the world have been gathering to discuss the future of science journalism.

I’ll be writing up posts over the next few days on the more interesting sessions I’ve been to (of those, there are many) but I wanted to start with the discussion generated by a panel discussion looking at the worrying trend towards scientists who work for Government-owned organisations being discouraged or even banned from publicly discussing science-related issues.

Perhaps the examples presented from Russia and China are not surprising given those countries’ well known track record on human rights abuses. But we also heard from a Canadian science journalist who outlined the extent to which state-employed scientists have been muzzled in recent years.

Russia – scientists jailed

Such is the humility of Russian science journalist and environmentalist Grigory Pasko, that during his WCSJ appearance he didn’t once mention the years he spent in prison between 2001 and 2003 on an espionage conviction that was widely criticized by the global community and which saw him labelled a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International.

In the late 1990s, Pasko supplied information, video tapes and reports to Japanese broadcaster NHK that detailed the dumping of old weapons and nuclear waste in the sea of Japan by the Russian military. The problem was that Pasko was a military officer, writing for Battle Watch, the in-house newspaper of the Russian Pacific Fleet.

Once Pasko was linked to the reports in Japan he was arrested and in 2001 stood trial facing 10 charges. In the end, he was convicted of a single espionage charge and sentenced to four years prison (including 20 months he had already served in custody).

The Russian prosecutor argued successfully that by handing state secrets to Japan, Pasko was committing espionage against his country. An appeal to the European Human Rights Court failed to clear his conviction. Since then, Pasko has become very familiar with the cases of scientists who have been imprisoned in Russia on various charges – there are currently nine in prison, some on similar espionage convictions.

Pasko said the prosecutions against scientists who had displeased the state began during the administration of Boris Yeltsin, but that under Vladimir Putin, “it became massive, accusations of espionage”.

He said scientists who spoke out about science-related issues, passed on information to outside parties or flagged unethical practices became targets of the FSB, Russia’s secret service agency. One tool the FSB apparently uses to apply pressure to scientists is in implying inappropriate use of so-called “dual technologies” – materials that have academic or industrial uses but could also be seen to have military applications too.

Ecological scientists using detailed maps for instance, had been accused of gathering intelligence on military installations and passing them on to foreign powers.

“If I buy a Teflon pen it’s okay. If I sell it to someone I can be accused of selling a dual-use technology,” said Pasko by example.

“There is a list of dual-use technologies. it is a thick book. it became this thick when Putin came to power.”

Pasko laid the responsibility for the intimidation and persecution of some scientists at the door of the FSB, which he said is “omnipotent” in Russia, with insufficient oversight.

Stonewalled in China

As the Asia news editor based in Beijing for the respected journal Science, Richard Stone has experienced firsthand the Chinese Government’s muzzling of scientists.

He says only “3 out of 10” scientists will generally agree to an interview.

“Really they are quite nervous about interacting with the media. The further from Shanghai and Beijing, the harder it gets.”

In 2007 Stone was investigating claims that the massive Three Gorges Dam was causing major environmental problems in the form of landslides and preventing certain fish species from migrating. He took the claims to scientists only to be met with “a brick wall”.

However by the spring of 2008, he said things had completely changed and scientists were suddenly able to talk. What does he put it down to? A change of tactic in the Chinese Government, which sought to associate the problems with the Three Gorges Dam with previous administrations who had developed the plans for the dam in the early 1990s.

In 2009 however, Stone was widely criticized in the Chinese state-controlled media for a Science report looking at whether the size and scale of the Zipingpu Dam was responsible for the deadly 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

The story raised questions about China’s entire hydro power strategy – and the current leadership’s priorities.

“That’s risky in China,” said Stone.

Scientists were off-limit to Stone on the issue. He encountered similar stonewalling when attempting to talk to scientists in Yunnan province who knew about the mysterious sudden death syndrome that had seen people dropping dead in the region on a semi-regular basis over many years.

Planning a feature for Science, Stone attempted to line up interviews with scientists for a trip to the region. The problem was that no one would talk to him and despite a directive from China’s heath minister to the Yunnan health department to cooperate with Stone, the interviews remained elusive. Stone finally found a local university researcher who introduced him to local doctors in villages. The sudden death syndrome dubbed Little White, has been linked to a particular type of toxin found in mushrooms that causes a rapid fall in a person’s blood sugar level, occasionally leading to death.

Stone said it remained challenging to report on science in China and that there was little incentive for scientists to improve the situation.

“They can live very well now. they have all the research funding they need,” he said. “They are not interested in helping journalists change the system.The lesson is don’t take no for an answer.”

Canada shuts down scientists

Surprisingly perhaps, a similar trend is evident in Canada, a country traditionally known for having an open society, transparent Government and robust media.

According to science writer Margaret Munro, a policy change across government departments took place around 2008 that saw federal scientists restricted from talking to the media without prior consent from press officers and in some cases, the offices of government ministers themselves.

The issue has come to light particularly in relation to environmental issues, such as climate change and the mining of Canada’s tar sands.

Munro spoke of Dr Scott Dallimore, a gas hydrates expert and Federally-employed scientist at the Geological Survey of Canada who for years had been widely used by the media.

Despite Dallimore having a paper published in Nature – on the seemingly uncontroversial subject of a massive flood that happened in Canada 13,000 years ago, he was, claims Munro, not allowed to discuss the paper with journalists without the authorization of the Canadian natural resources minister.

The new policies, which Munro speculates were implemented at the behest of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, were revealed in a leaked Environment Canada Powerpoint presentation in 2007, which spoke of the need for “one department, one voice”.

“The new rules spread like a virus across Government departments,” said Munro.

“All of a sudden they wouldn’t call you back. A media officer in Ottawa would. It became a very closed system. Researchers have to follow approved lines and scripts. interviews with journalists are tape recorded.”

Again, scientists were reluctant to mobilize to try and challenge the status quo.

You lose your job and you lose that gold-plated pension. We don’t have that revolutionary blood in our veins,” said Munro.

Let Government scientists speak

The session at the World Conference of Science Journalists sparked considerable debate and informal undertakings among representatives of science writers associations to monitor their local situation and increasingly lobby for transparency and the freeing of government scientists to speak openly about their research and important science-related issues in the public interest.

From informal chats around the halls of the conference in Doha, the tightening of control of what government scientists are allowed to say seems to be fairly widespread in Western countries such as the UK and Australia and particularly pronounced when it comes to environmental and health-related issues.

So what of New Zealand? Crown research institute scientists are generally allowed to talk to the media as long as they conform to protocols laid out by their communications offices. However government scientists do often remain absent from public discussion of subjects they are best placed to comment on, which is a longstanding issue often blamed on the “commercial sensitivity” of their work.

But are directives coming down from the offices of ministers to scientists about what they can and cannot talk to the media about? I haven’t seen evidence of that. What is more insidious is self-censorship among scientists who don’t want to rock the boat for the reasons the journalists quoted above have outlined. It is an issue of concern globally particularly as we face natural disasters, the spread of infectious diseases and environmental issues that have potentially major consequences for all of us and which require accurate information to be presented to the public.

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