Mon, 09/26/2016 - 13:19

Posted by Belinda Alzner on February 29, 2012

It’s been 30 years since Section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms made a free press the law of the land. But, on the eve of a national conference to take stock of the state of press freedom in Canada, Ivor Shapiro sees more apathy than passion around the issue.

 

Three journalists were killed in Syria last week: capital punishment for the crime of witnessing and describing current events. How sad for the benighted third world, and how lucky for sunlit us, that no one ever stops a Canadian reporter from doing her job. Lucky us that here, information of public importance can be pursued without unreasonable impediment. Here, stories are vigorously told without fear or favour, and while politicians, police and bureaucrats may not like those stories, they dare not be seen as standing in the way of truthful reporting. After all, this country’s citizenry, and their courts, guard no right more jealously than the right to express even the most obnoxious views.

(Sound effects: screechy rewind; music stops, followed by moment of reproachful silence.)

Okay. So at least we don’t kill our reporters here.

As for the freedom-of-expression landscape at large, consider this: a letter to the editor in the National Post, October 27th, 2011, about the efforts to remove Occupy Bay Street, reads, in full:

“The bottom line is that no 'collective' right can violate basic decency and respect for the freedom of others. You are free to 'assemble peacefully' on your own property, but you cannot block public places, roads or sidewalks. The state has a right to ensure that everyone can use public places and roads. Either we live in a civilized society or we live in a state of anarchy where the law and the authority of the state is ignored or irrelevant."

Well, thank you, Iain G. Foulds, of Spruce Grove, Alta., for conceding my right to assemble peacefully on my own private property.   

Or this: security guards employed by the City of Toronto regularly (and, thankfully, erroneously) tell Ryerson journalism students that they are not allowed to interview people in public squares and on other City property without a permit or accreditation. Meanwhile, the mayor of the same city deems it acceptable to shut the city's and country's largest newspaper out of access to his office. And no public outcry ensues.

Or this: an annual FOI audit by Newspapers Canada predictably concludes that while access to government data is an essential right, “how meaningful that right is varies depending on where you live in Canada.”

Or, of course, this: a federal political party screens citizens' Facebook profiles in order to control admission to campaign rallies. That same party, as a minority government, shouts down pretty much all discretionary access to government by the media. The result: that party is reelected, rewarded with majority government, and proceeds to further shut down the walls on civil servants’ freedom to voice their views publicly. 

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So the question must be asked: What would it take to get Canadians to give a damn about free expression?

Everyone I know unambiguously supports press freedom and agrees that it is a pillar of democracy. Almost no one I know does so with any evident passion. My friends’ passions lie with other pillars, other freedoms. 

Zeal for free expression seems to be reserved for people whose chief objection is to human rights commissions and restrictions on hate speech, rather than something defended with along with equity and compassion. The URL canadianfreespeech.com is owned by an organization that has issued 10 press releases since 1999, of which one protests customs censorship of Little Sisters bookstore, one protests a cancellation by Chapters of a book signing by new-age conspiracy theorist David Icke, and the other eight protest restrictions on holocaust denial and other hate speech or efforts by anti-racist or anti-homophobic initiatives.

Try Googling "free speech Canada" and "free expression Canada" and what you’ll find mostly is voices raised against gay rights rather than homophobia, against anti-racist activity rather than racism, against Islam, against feminism, against a perceived leftist bias in university curricula. How did title to freedom of expression get bought by the right? When did the left and the moderate middle cede that cause? I don’t know, but over the past few months, as plans came together for a national conference on press freedom, I’ve been reminded of the divide.

The conference, called "Press Freedom in Canada: A status report on the 30th Anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," will be held next week (March 8-9, 2012) in Toronto, convened jointly by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre and the Ryerson Law Research Centre. In the early planning stage, one valued colleague – a journalist, heart, soul and scratch-for- the-truth fingernails - confessed she was finding it tough to get excited about the project.  “Frankly,” she said, “press freedom is just not one of the things I feel deeply about." She wasn’t alone.

Yet, it wasn’t at all hard to pull together a lineup of leading thinkers to explore issues around the past three decades of constitutionally protected freedom of expression and of the media.  They include:

  • Top-rank journalists such as Toronto Star editor Michael Cooke, Globe and Mail and Ottawa Citizen columnists Margaret Wente and Susan Riley, Huffington Post Canada’s Kenny Yum, NOW Magazine CEO and editor Alice Klein, the CBC fifth estate’s Linden McIntyre, and Emmy-award winning reporter Peter Klein, formerly of CBS News and now at UBC;
  • Leading lawyers including Quebec Press Council president John Gomery, CBC chief counsel Danny Henry, and human rights advocate Marlys Ewardh as well as top media litigators Brian Macleod Rogers and Christian Leblanc, among several others;
  • Suzanne Craig, integrity commissioner for the City of Vaughan, who will provide an insider’s insight on access to information;
  • Keynote speaker Tony Burman, former head of CBC News and Al Jazeera English and now a research chair at Ryerson;
  • Privacy advocate Jonathan Richardson, who will debate the Star’s legendary newsroom counsel, Bert Bruser; and
  • Legal and media scholars from 12 universities across Canada and abroad, exploring the practical difference made to press freedom made by the Charter, by the certification debate in Quebec, by the “guerilla lawyering” done by small-town court reporters, by SLAPP suits and open-source reporting and sexual-assault coverage and more.

Maybe thinking about freedom of the press from diverse perspectives will help to reorient the discourse from what is currently a marginal concern to something that is nuanced and vital – a foundation and shield for other fundamental liberties. Maybe we can discover ways in which litigators, researchers, teachers and news people with diverse views can find both common ground and cause for reasoned and passionate debate.

Maybe the event’s twitter feed (#pressfreedom) will wake millions of Canadians from sleep and they’ll start caring about press freedom, overnight.

(Scratchy rewind sound repeated.)

Okay, but it’s a start. And it’s not too late to register, so please, do join us.

Ivor Shapiro, the ethics editor of J-Source, is chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. Portions of this article were first presented to the annual conference of Ad Idem/Canadian Media Lawyers Association in Montreal, November 2011.

Comments

"Lucky us that here, information of public importance can be pursued without unreasonable impediment. Here, stories are vigorously told without fear or favour, and while politicians, police and bureaucrats may not like those stories, they dare not be seen as standing in the way of truthful reporting."

Your opening paragraph struck a chord with us here in Windsor. We at the Windsor Square have requested numerous times to be added to the City of Windsor's distribution list for media announcements and news releases. Continually we have been denied the basic custom enjoyed by those in the traditional media and many of those engaged in online reporting. You see, our politicians and City Administration do stand in the way of the Windsor Square being able to provide our readership with "truthful reporting".

The powers that be are seen every day to be standing in the way by providing unreasonable impediment of stories they do not want the public to know, especially if it is contrary to their official dogma.

The Toronto Star thought they had it tough with Rob Ford. He's a pussy-cat when compared to Eddie Francis.

Dissapointing there's no discount for non-Ryerson students.

I'm old enough to remember when freedom of speech and expression was a left-wing cause. It should be again, while remaining a right-wing cause and becoming a middle-of-the-road cause. All of us have more to fear from people who might want to shut us up than we have from the people we might like to make shut up.

Hi, Dylan. Thanks for asking about the student discount, information, which is missing from the website. Students from institutions other than Ryerson can attend the conference by presenting student ID and a cash registration fee of $10.00 (per day of conference) at the registration desk located on March 8th in Rogers Communication Centre, 80 Gould Street and on March 9th at Oakham House, 63 Gould Street. The keynote lunch on March 8th is now sold out.

I think this is a bit misguided. There doesn't seem to be any problem with "freedom" of the press in Canada - they seem perfectly free to say more or less what they want. That some people - politicians or whoever - choose not to speak to some of the media sometimes would seem to be their right, also - if Cdns do not like this, they would seem to be free enough to elect politicians who are a bit more approachable, open, honest, etc. It would be a bit draconian to make some kind of law saying that anytime someone said "I'm the press!!", and stuck a microphone or notepad in someone's face, they *had* to answer - think about it.

There is a pretty serious problem, however, with the idea of press *responsibility* - the duty of people calling themselves 'the media' to actually do what they are supposed to do in a democracy - talk about things the people need to know, from a more or less impartial point of view, getting 'the facts' as best as they can and then giving a variety of interpretations of what is happening so the people can decide who to believe, etc - which our current media don't seem to be doing very well at all. In pretty much any major issue, the Canadian media seem to be little more than the secretariat of the ruling powers, rah-rahing anything the rulers want to get up to, and marginalizing POVs the rulers want marginalized - spin and gatekeeping seem to be the guiding light of the modern Cdn media - which they are certainly free enough to do in our democracy, but it doesn't really qualify as 'journalism', and those who practice such things should not really call themselves 'journalists'.

(Noting, of course, that it doesn't much matter who is calling themselves 'the PM' or 'the government' - all serious decisions about what happens in the country are made somewhere in boardrooms high above Bay St where the money that rules us all lives, and the politicians of any party do as they're instructed (if they want the lovely perks that come with being 'the government' - they're quite good at marginalizing any type of political movement with whom they disagree - think about the CAP..) - thus 'uncovering' little 'scandals' that 'expose' one or another politician or party as getting up to something untowards is just more spectacle - the 'real' things going on that the people might benefit from a bit more impartial information are 'covered' as if the media en masse are simply the secretariat of the Canadian capitalist politburo, spreading and advocating the desired message. For example, the demonisation of the Syrian leader that has been underway for a few months, remarkably resembling the demonisation of Gaddaffi last year, or Hussein a few years ago, or ongoing with Iran, or Putin in Russia at the moment - a monologue from the mainstream media, designed, quite obviously, to create a sense of passive acceptance in the population of what the rulers wish to do (regime change, etc). Or the current imposition of 'austerity' all over the western world - media monologue, rather than looking into the details of *why* this is happening, and the massive fraud and scam it is (if you wonder what I am talking about, a read of this might bring some enlightenment - It's Not 'Austerity' It's Looting - http://www.rudemacedon.ca/vgi/backgrounders/not_austerity_looting.html - it's not something you will EVER see in the MSM ... ). And many other issues currently and over the last few years of the neocon takeover of our world - the mainstream media acting as the NWO secretariat - perfectly free, obviously, but very much NOT doing the job they are supposed to be doing in a democracy of giving the public the information they need to make decisions about the running of *their* country, rather 'selling' a certain POV, creating a narrative.
This, now, would be worth some looking at, if the media were actually working *for* Cdns, rather than against them - rather than the very red-herring laments about 'press freedom', which is very obviously not a problem. And I am somewhat surprised to see any association of Cdn journalists apparently unaware of such things. Has nobody read Chomsky, or the many others who have talked about such things?

 

Dear Mr. Shapiro, I certainly give a damn, and much more. For me personally freedom of press v. no freedom of press in Canada translates into the difference between life and death. To explain this I have to somehow let you know who I am. I am a scientist who is persecuted in Canada, whose research and discoveries were ALLEDGEDLY (I allege, that is) stolen, who has no job since 1987 and who, of course, would like to see this story reported in the media. For how many years and decades the abuse of Indians was not reported, similarly - the abuse of children by priests, similarly - abuse of hockey players, etc., etc. Closer to my situation, the Canada press reported the complaints of Dr. Fabrikant only when Prof. Arthurs Report confirmed them to be quite legitimate. (The Report said that Concordia investigations were “misleading”, “superficial”, “not based on a proper inquiry”, “clearly and seriously deficient” and “inadequate”.) For Dr. Fabrikant, the press could make a huge difference. For some people, there is no freedom of press. And what it means, it means that their fate is entirely in the hands of those who persecute them. In Canada, government employees and administration, if corrupt, can ruin the life of a person completely; I mean it's the press that holds the key. The examples above show this. Do you believe the current state of affairs when freedom of the press means freedom of the owners of the press and nothing more, is tolerable? I don't think so. You really must see my web site (I do not post here the URL fearing this link in free Canada will make my comment removed. I think the comment now has over 1% chance to be actually posted.) Respectfully, Michael Pyshnov.

J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.