Featured in issue 5 of Marker.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
– Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
When it comes to Canada’s current state of press freedom, well, we aren’t doing so well. Canada started 2012 at number 10 on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, and dropped a hard 10 spots the following year, falling behind Namibia (19th), Costa Rica (16th) and Jamaica (13th). Now in 2014, we sit at a marginally higher number 18, with the top spot dominated once again by Finland.
So the question is: What must have happened for one of the largest democratic nations in the world to tarnish its international press reputation so fast?
Well, there are a few reasons, and if they continue on at this current rate it won’t be a surprise if things get worse before they get better.
When Alberta’s Bill-45 came into effect in December 2013, it allowed for an increase in fines for union workers who strike “illegally”, and for parties who play a part in instigating said strike.
Section 4 of Bill 45 reads:
4(1) No employee and no trade union or officer or representative of a trade union shall cause or consent to a strike.
(2) No employee and no officer or representative of a trade union shall engage in or continue to engage in any conduct that constitutes a strike threat or a strike.
(3) No trade union shall engage in or continue to engage in any conduct that constitutes a strike threat.
(4) No person shall counsel a person to contravene subsection (1) or (2) or impede or prevent a person from refusing to contravene subsection (1) or (2).
Part of the controversy for journalists here lies in what would be classified as “instigating”. Writers now have to deal with the overlying cloud of potentially getting in trouble for reporting on stories relating to labour laws and working conditions in unionized companies.
“We’re now self-censoring,” says Miki Andrejovic, a board member of PEN Canada and founder of Edmonton’s LitFest. He adds, “We don’t do investigative journalism [anymore]; we’re doing celebrity stuff because it sells and journalists [still] have to earn a living.”
[pullquote]”There’s no confidentiality, so people are very reluctant to [talk to journalists]”Miki Andrejovic[/pullquote]
There’s also the issue of protecting confidential sources. In a case against former National Post reporter, Andrew McIntosh, the Supreme Court ruled that the editors at the Post were required to hand over documents McIntosh received from his confidential source regarding former prime minister Jean Chretien. While a similar case was overturned a few months later, the Court essentially decided to go on a case-by-case basis deciding whether or not it was in everyone’s best interest to reveal a source. So essentially, confidential informants do not have anonymity in the eyes of our judicial system.
Andrejovic adds, “There’s no confidentiality, so people are very reluctant to [talk to journalists].”
For some living in Canada, however, it’s a matter of perspective. Exiled journalist Aaron Berhane fled his native Eritrea— a country ranked last on the Press Freedom Index— for Toronto, where he runs the independent Eritrean-Canadian paper, Meftih. In his home country he would receive threats of intimidation and death on a regular basis, and would be brought to the local police station once or twice a week for mundane questioning.
While he may appreciate his newfound freedom as a writer and publisher, the current state of press freedom in Canada is not lost on the award-winning journalist. He, like many others, expects more.
“As a journalist, I like to have access to information freely,” says Berhane. “For example, I don’t want to be restricted from interviewing scientists of federal research facilities, but since Harper came to power that access is controlled tightly.”
Part of that power lies in the hands of the Communications Security Establishment of Canada (CSEC)— Canada’s spy ring. Much like the current battle our neighbours to the south are having with the NSA, CSEC also operates with a heavy layer of secrecy, spying on average Canadians and breaching basic codes of ethics and privacy laws.
“We know that CSEC is working closely with their counterpart in the U.S., the NSA,” says David Christopher, the communications manager for OpenMedia.ca (Vancouver), a community-based organization devoted to promoting open Internet and educating people about censorship and their online rights.
He adds, “In fact, the information that’s being gathered from spying on law abiding Canadians is being shared with the [NSA] as well. I certainly think that if I was a journalist, that would be something at the back of my mind.”
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any signs of CSEC loosening their grip, as they have been approved for a new multi-billion dollar headquarters in Ottawa, making it the most expensive government building in the country’s history.
To put it simply, we deserve better. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be higher on the Press Freedom Index, and there’s no reason why investigative journalism in this country should be muffled under the moniker of democracy. Canada has produced strong, articulate minds in the world of journalism— and still is. So in spite of secret spy agencies and bureaucratic red tape, journalists will continue to do what’s right, regardless of the rules that tell them otherwise.
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