America tends to arrogantly think that censorship is something that only happened in Stalinist Russia, or, currently, the Middle East; America, of course, is proclaimed to be the land of the free. That stuff doesn’t happen here.
Many other countries think that censorship only happens within the borders of America due to its Puritanical history and the deepening culture war between liberals and conservatives that is supplanting logic and reason with ideological rhetoric and fundamentalism.
No one seems to be paying much attention to Canada. After all, Canada is where someone rear ends your car and you’re the one doing the apologizing. Dear, sweet, respectful Canada- where someone insults you in the worst imaginable ways and you react by thanking them for their opinion and their time before walking on down the street.
The American Library Association holds Banned Books Week in the last week of September, but our neighbors to the north celebrate Freedom to Read Week earlier, which falls between February 24 and March 2.
By world standards, Canada may seem to be the true land of freedom, but the freedom to read can never be misjudged or taken for granted. Incidents are rising of books and magazines being confiscated at the border; many schools and libraries are seeing books removed from shelves; the free expression of ideas on the internet is under increased scrutiny; and scientific organizations are being blocked from speaking out to the public or through academic mediums.
According to a report this week in the Globe and Mail, the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic and Democracy Watch requested that federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault investigate claims that scientists are being prohibited from speaking freely with journalists and, ultimately through them, the public.
In a report called Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy, the researchers presented some distressing trends: Scientists are either told not to speak to journalists at all or to only release sanitized statements approved by institutional Public Relations censors. These restrictions are most controlled when a journalist is seeking information about research relating to climate change or the tar sands. Canadian environmental scientists are required to gain approval from the Privy Council Office before speaking publicly on “sensitive topics such as climate change” or on issues pertaining to, say, the protection of polar bears and caribou.
The average citizen must be protected from attaining such knowledge lest they go off on some crazy rampage upon learning of the plight of the caribou, don’t you know. Who knows just how crazy it would be. It would be panic in the streets; flotsam and jetsam; Sodom and Gomorrah; the zombie apocalypse.
The report states that government scientists are “frustrated,” which is an understatement in every sense of the word, and makes clear just how deliberate the censorship policies are: “The federal government has recently made concerted efforts to prevent the media- and through them, the general public- from speaking to government scientists, and this, in turn, impoverishes the public debate on issues of significant national concern.”
The government’s authoritarian control of scientists’ research under Harper’s administration has raised concerns around the world for several years now, including repeated condemnation from Nature magazine. Damn those tree-hugging hippies.
Thousands of scientists from across Canada marched on Parliament Hill last July to protest cuts in research in environment and climate change and other restrictions placed on their ability to speak freely about their work. They created what has to be the most awesome chant in the history of political protest: “What do we want? Science! When do we want it? After peer review!”
The tightening of the information flow is growing stronger with each new policy. Margaret Munro of Postmedia News also reported last week that a University of Delaware scientist, Andreas Muenchow, was furious over a new confidentiality agreement brought in by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “I’m not signing it,” Muenchow told the reporter.
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression released a report about the freedom of information requests: “Canada’s access to information system is in a deep crisis and without urgent reform could soon become dysfunctional,” the report noted. Fewer requests are being processed, and those that do make it that far move along at a noticeably slow pace, often returning marred by the red pen of government censorship.
As a result of these policies, Canada recently dropped out of the top 10 to No. 20 in the World Freedom Index, which measures, among other things, how unrestrained a country’s media is. Jamaica, by contrast, now ranks highest in the region.
Any time is a good time to celebrate the freedom to read, but this week is an especially good time to engage in our most precious civil liberty regardless of which country we call home. Some activities are as simple as visiting a library or bookstore with your children; but rather than just reading anything off of the shelf, read something that’s banned- something controversial. Better yet, write something controversial. Who knows- you just might get banned yourself. That would be legen- wait for it- *BEEEEEEEP- We apologize for the inconvenience, but this article has been deemed by the state to be promoting subordinate, subversive activity and has been silenced for your protection.*
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://www.deepforestproductions.com/BBARK.html