The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been given an F in an annual Canadian press freedom report card.

Although the federal government as a whole received a C-, Fisheries and Oceans Canada was singled out "for its zeal in muzzling scientists and keeping critical research findings from Canadians," said a news release from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression Thursday.

The organization, which advocates for the rights of journalists and media workers to express themselves, released the annual report card in conjunction with World Press Freedom Day, which takes place Friday.

The report accompanying the report card said DFO received the failing grade because:

  • It did not allow scientist Kristi Miller to speak to the media about her work on salmon diseases for two full years after the research was published.
  • It is one of the departments under investigation by the information commissioner for allegedly muzzling its scientists.
  • It was singled out for "severe limits on publication" that could prompt scientists in other countries to pull out of collaborations with Canadian scientists.

A more detailed article in the report said that as of January, DFO scientists have been told they must now get departmental approval to submit research to science journals and the department has the power to pull scientific articles that have already been accepted for publication. It also has proposed confidentiality provisions "that, for the first time" would apply to non-government and non-Canadian research collaborators.

"The Harper administration isn't the first government to try to massage the message," wrote Ottawa journalist Bob Carty, author of that section of the report.

"But in my experience, it's never been this bad. Some journalists have given up even trying to get a comment from a federal scientist in Canada — it's easier to call someone in the U.S. or the U.K."

Communicating science 'a priority,' DFO says

In response to the report, Barbara Mottram, press secretary to Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, said in a statement that "communicating its science is a priority for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the department’s record is solid."

Mottram added that the department responds to about 380 media calls per year, publishes weekly science feature stories on its website, and releases science advisory reports "documenting our research." The reports provide updates on individual fish and shellfish stocks, ecosystems and habitats.

In the case of Miller, Mottram said she was not allowed to speak about research published in 2011 in order to "protect the integrity" of hearings later that year at a public inquiry into the 2009 collapse of the Fraser River sockeye salmon stocks. However, she said the written report, published in the journal Science, was widely available.

Other organizations graded in the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression report included:

  • The Access to Information program, which got a D-, up from F in past years. That was due to " a very slight increase in completed federal ATI (access to information) requests and a slight decrease in the number of requests denied for security reasons."
  • The federal government overall, which received a C-. CFJE praised the government for withdrawing its controversial internet surveillance bill. However, the group criticized the government for its suspension of Justice Department lawyer Edgar Schmidt for claiming that the government's way of judging whether legislation was consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was illegal.
  • The Supreme Court, which got a C, down from B+ last year. CFJE said the court broke no important ground this year, unlike last year when it made some significant rulings about free expression.
  • The Parliamentary Budget Office, which got an A for "its contribution over the past five years to the discourse in Canada bout access to information, transparency and accountability of government."