Conjuring the name “Orwell,” whose 1984 World State featured brutality, manipulation of information, and propaganda, seems over the top and fear-mongering, especially as we’ve grown up in the shadow of the “land of the free, home of the brave” (only in a country we smugly thought was even better). We need to revisit those assumptions.
Truth is always provisional, that is, as fallible humans we can never be absolutely sure of our knowledge. We count on reliable information to make the best decisions we can. Further, we often rely on experts (e.g. doctors, lawyers, etc.) to assist us in determining how to deal with the information we are given or discover.
If someone says, “The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen from about 275 parts per million over 200 years ago to nearly 400 ppm today, a rise of about 45 per cent,” we have data. The vast majority of climate scientists have made the meaning of this phenomenon quite clear.
How does information influence political liberty? For generations, the beacon of liberty on the world horizon was that held by Liberty, the famous statue in New York harbour. It symbolized the ideal that people should be free, and trusted, to work to create an abundant society, one marked by broad availability of information and knowledge, and by political participation.
In the U.S., constitutional guarantees protect freedom of the press, basically to encourage political participation based on access to information, however biased reporting might be. Trust that the public can separate facts from fiction, propaganda and lies is made explicit.
Canadians defined our adherence to these basic ideas in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Under Section 2 of the Charter, Canadians “are guaranteed freedom of thought, belief and expression.” The Charter also protects “the right of the press and other media to speak out.”
Despite these duly constituted guarantees, the so-called Harper government has abridged and in some cases, eliminated these rights and freedoms. Since his original election as prime minister in 2006, Stephen Harper’s administration has adopted institutional procedures to prevent Canadians from gaining access to information that might influence us to disagree with, and ultimately (through electoral means) disown, his policies.
Environment Canada scientists have been forbidden to speak with the press about controversial issues such as climate change without having their messages vetted or “massaged” by officials from media relations headquarters, a comparatively new branch of Environment Canada. Get this straight. Despite constitutionally guaranteed rights to the contrary, scientists we pay for information have been forbidden to speak publicly without permission!
According to a report by democracywatch.ca, for issues related to climate change, wildlife, water quality and supply, or protection of species, media relations sends media requests for scientist interviews to the Privy Council Office for approval. Thus, members of the federal cabinet or perhaps even the Prime Minister will decide whether or not an expert public employee and Canadian citizen may speak, or what he or she might say.
Government scientist David Tarasick was prohibited from speaking on his research regarding an atmospheric ozone hole in Canada’s arctic. Instead, media relations advisors crafted responses for him.
Scientist David Schindler, whose research discovered toxic pollutants from the tar sands contaminating the Athabasca Valley, received scripted answers from the office of Environment Minister Peter Kent.
In B.C., scientist Kristi Miller was forbidden to address the media regarding her findings leading to testimony at the Cohen Commission regarding the collapse of Fraser River salmon.
A professor at Dalhousie University characterized current conditions in Canada this way: “We have somehow deemed it…permissible for an Iron Curtain to be drawn across the communication of science in this country.”
A government that arbitrarily limits freedom of speech and information does not deserve our confidence. Despite our constitutional rights and freedoms, our Prime Minister appears to prefer Orwell’s World State motto from 1984: Ignorance is Strength—our ignorance, his strength.
Al Lehmann is a retired English teacher living in Terrace, B.C.