Of ministries, media and muzzling: Reporting in a world gone quiet

Ontario’s provincial government is no longer satisfied with muzzling its own experts. It now wants to muzzle the media.

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, along with the Ministry of Agriculture, hosted a press briefing June 9 to share information on the province’s new regulations for insecticide seed treatments.

As is standard in most news conferences, the event began with a 10 minute overview of the issue.

Steve Klose, a Ministry of the Environment employee, explained how neonicotinoid seed treatments, applied to corn and soybean seeds, are a threat to bees, the agricultural economy and the wider environment. As the list went on, it started to sound like neonics were being blamed for most of horrific things ever faced in Ontario, including the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Journalists then posed questions to Klose and two other government representatives. The employees provided detailed and thoughtful answers for 20 minutes.

"Several sources, inside and outside of Ontario, have told me that the province is muzzling its experts on pesticides, bees and Integrated Pest Management." - WP reporter Robert Arnason | File photo

“Several sources, inside and outside of Ontario, have told me that the province is muzzling its experts on pesticides, bees and Integrated Pest Management.” – WP reporter Robert Arnason | File photo

As is standard for journalists in the internet age, I wrote an article shortly after the press conference. The piece was edited and posted on The Western Producer website the afternoon of June 9. It’s at www.producer.com/daily/ont-neonic-rules-to-include-20000-fines/.

Later that day, I received an email from an Ontario Ministry of the Environment spokesperson. She thanked me for participating in the news conference.

But she added; if I was looking for “quotes or attribution” from the media briefing, I should have contacted her.

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She would have provided a statement or set up an interview with Ontario’s Minister of the Environment, Glen Murray.

In other words, the comments made during the ‘media briefing’ were off the record. Therefore, I shouldn’t have mentioned names of provincial staff or reported on what they said.

I can’t recall how many news events I’ve attended over the last decade, but I’ve never been told that comments made during a news conference were not for attribution.

There are sometimes informational sessions that are held for background only, but those are clearly stated as not for attribution. There was no such wording provided for this event.

Normally, 99 times out of a 100, I ignore such emails. I don’t think the public really cares about the nuances of the media business.

But I’m making a public exception in this case because it fits into a larger pattern within the Ontario government when it comes to neonics.

Several sources, inside and outside of Ontario, have told me that the province is muzzling its experts on pesticides, bees and Integrated Pest Management.

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They said provincial scientists aren’t speaking about neonics, or anything connected to neonics, because public comments could jeopardize their careers.

I attempted to set up interviews with provincial experts in May, to ask technical questions about bee losses or insecticides. In both cases my interview requests were denied.

Patrick Lynch, a well-known certified crop adviser in Ontario, said muzzling of provincial scientists isn’t an issue when it comes to neonics.

Lynch is more concerned that environmental advocates, such as the Sierra Club, are influencing public policy in Ontario.

“I do not like a group from the U.S., no matter who they are, telling the Ontario government, my government, what to do.”

Lynch has a valid point. When an outsider tells people what they should or shouldn’t do, nobody likes it.

Including agricultural journalists.

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Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

  • The CRE

    Scientific and regulatory bodies in the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK have analyzed neonicotinoid-treated seeds and concluded that it is varroa destructor and the diseases it spreads, not neonics, which is responsible for bee health decline. For more information, please see the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness’s letter to the President’s Pollinator Health Task Force, http://www.thecre.com/oira_pd/?p=11818

  • Amelia Jordan

    I have been observing this hijacking of Ontario’s agriculture policy from across the border with horror and fascination. My thoughts are with Ontario farmers and scientists.

  • Kaslo

    Yeah and AGW isn’t real either, right?!

  • John Fefchak

    Looks like Ontario has been assimilated by the Harper Conservatives,
    who have become experts in muzzling.