A look at censorship in environment and public health


Below is an excerpt from the above article.

“Corporations have an obvious incentive to prevent release of information about their activities that damage health or the environment, but sometimes government bodies develop just as strong an interest. For example, many government agriculture departments have become enthusiastic advocates of pesticides and have tried to cover up or discredit contrary information.

Unethical public relations can be considered the civilian equivalent of military disinformation. Corporations have used various techniques to undermine and discredit critics pointing to environmental and health problems, including spying, buying support from experts, cover-ups, lying and payments to journalists. To limit the impact of unwelcome books, there are cases of covert disruption of speaking tours and dissemination of damaging material to media outlets. David Steinman’s 1990 book Diet for a Poisoned Planet was subject to this sort of treatment.

Another technique used by corporations is the silencing “agreement”. When workers or citizens sue manufacturers over the health effects of their work processes or products, the corporation may settle out of court–with the condition that details of the case remain secret, including claims of harm, the size of the payout and company documents provided as part of the case.

A third type of interest group responsible for much censorship in environment and public health is professions, especially the medical profession. The classic example is the response of doctors to Ignác Semmelweis, who beginning in the 1840s advocated antiseptic handwashing by obstetricians to reduce the high rate of maternal death during childbirth due to puerperal fever. Semmelweis was ignored, dismissed and misrepresented.

Standard cancer treatments are surgery, radiation and chemicals. Those who criticise these approaches or promote alternative therapies or theories, such as vitamin C or bacterial theories, are marginalised by techniques including denying research funds, cutting off grants, blocking publications and dismissing researchers. The American Cancer Society compiled a list of “unproven methods” of cancer management in order to discredit alternatives, although some of them had shown positive results whereas, in comparison, many standard therapies had not been shown to be effective.

The dental profession’s promotion of fluoridation has used similar techniques. Referees have tried to block certain articles because they might help antifluoridationists. Dentists who have spoken out against fluoridation have been threatened with reprisals and sometimes deregistered. Scientists have had research funds removed. In the 1960s, the Journal of the American Dental Association published a dossier on antifluoridationists, including much dubious material, and used it to discredit scientists and doctors opposed to fluoridation.

The theory that AIDS arose from contaminated polio vaccines used in Africa in the 1950s is very threatening to the medical research establishment. Articles and letters outlining the theory were refused publication at several medical and scientific journals. The developer of the vaccine, Hilary Koprowski, sued authors and media outlets for defamation, thereby stopping discussion of the theory.

The legal system has often been used to stop discussion of environmental and health issues. In the so-called McLibel case, Helen Steel and Dave Morris were sued by McDonald’s over a critical leaflet. Numerous US citizens have been sued by corporations for writing letters, signing petitions or making media statements about environmental and health issues (among others); these sorts of legal actions are now commonly called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or SLAPPs. They are a form of harassment that inhibits people from speaking out, and are also used in some other countries. In a number of US states, there are “food disparagement laws” that prohibit criticisms of certain foods.”

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