from the we'll-see-how-this-goes... dept
Reports started coming out this morning that the new Trump Administration had told the EPA that it needed to stop doing anything publicly without first getting approval from the White House (in addition to freezing grants and contracts). According to a memo that was sent around to EPA staff:
- No press releases will be going out to external audiences.
- No social media will be going out. A Digital Strategist will be coming on board to oversee social media. Existing, individually controlled, social media accounts may become more centrally controlled.
- No blog messages.
- The Beach Team will review the list of upcoming webinars and decide which ones will go forward.
- Please send me a list of any external speaking engagements that are currently scheduled among any of your staff from today through February.
- Incoming media requests will be carefully screened.
- No new content can be place on any website. Only do clean up where essential.
- List servers will be reviewed. Only send out critical messages, as messages can be shared broadly and end up in the press.
Of course, it quickly became clear that this was not just for the EPA. The USDA received similar marching orders. Same with the Department of Health & Human Services and possibly others as well, including the Department of Commerce, being told it can't even publish the basic research it releases for US companies.
It's possible to say that this is just the Trump administration hitting the pause button to figure out what's going on before moving forward again, but many in these agencies are quite worried that they're going to be muzzled for political reasons. Most of the people working in these agencies are civil servants, not political appointees, and their work is not at all political. The press releases and blog posts are generally to release new findings, research and data from taxpayer funded studies. This shouldn't be controversial or reviewed for political motives.
Of course, this kind of thing is hardly unprecedented. For many years, we wrote about the ridiculousness of then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper gagging Canadian scientists from talking about factual research that was politically inconvenient (including a study on fish stock). This kind of gagging on "politically sensitive" but factual science was only lifted last year once Justin Trudeau came into office. Of course, just a few months before that, the UK similarly started muzzling scientists to stop them saying anything the politicians didn't like.
One hopes the Trump administration will not be putting in place similar policies.
Of course, if that is the plan, it should be a huge boon for investigative journalists. And they're already hunting for sources. As the reports on the gag order came out this morning, lots of reporters stepped up on Twitter with notes on how to contact publications with information:
— Frank Bajak (@fbajak) January 24, 2017
— Freedom of the Press (@FreedomofPress) January 24, 2017
If you work for the government and are now banned from providing basic info to the public, know that journalists will protect your identity.
— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) January 24, 2017
Reminder for federal workers getting silence orders this week: here's a secure way to reach the Washington Post https://t.co/nHKduDCZ2s
— Rebecca Sinderbrand (@sinderbrand) January 24, 2017
— Amanda Cormier (@amandalcormier) January 24, 2017
So, perhaps this kind of gag order will lead to a golden age of whistleblowing. Unfortunately, it may also lead to further crackdowns on whistleblowers. Once again, as we've explained over and over again the past few years, the Obama administration was the most aggressive and proactive in cracking down on whistleblowers and the press, and they've now handed off that power and precedent to the Trump administration, which will have a pretty big opportunity to use it.