Press freedom in Canada is more at risk than you think
Verbal and physical abuse, government obfuscation and police raids, seizures and arrests are just a few of the occupational hazards that many Canadians might think journalists only encounter when reporting on clandestine activities. of illiberal regimes in distant countries or when they document atrocities committed in zones of global conflict.
The reality, however, is much more disappointing. Just as 2020 has been a troubling year for journalists around the world, it is important to recognize that Canadian journalists are not immune to the backlash of increasingly hostile social and political environments that are spreading recklessly, while like the pandemic, in the deepest recesses of our communities.
In late April, Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based NGO dedicated to safeguarding the right to freedom of information around the world, released the 2021 edition of its World Press Freedom Index.
The annual index assesses 180 countries and territories against a host of qualitative and quantitative measures to produce an easily digestible scorecard where one country’s performance can be compared to another.
In this year’s survey, Canada placed 14th in the standings, a two-spot improvement from last year. From a macro perspective, it sounds like a “good” news headline — and some makers are hoping you’ll do it quickly, nod politely, and move on.
Canada, after all, played a leadership role in the Global Coalition for Media Freedom. In partnership with the United Kingdom, it created a Media Freedom Award. And last November, it co-hosted, with Botswana, the World Conference for Media Freedom.
These are, without a doubt, commendable international efforts. But at the same time, these global exercises also highlight the extent to which the federal government continues to speak out loud and clear, albeit with a big twig, on improving access to information and, more generally, freedom of the press here at home.
Over the past 14 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed many uncomfortable truths that have shocked our own sense of moral virtue and will hopefully bring about meaningful change.
During a public health emergency, where access to quality information is more important than ever, many federal departments have instead used the pandemic as a foil for transparency.
It has been nearly 40 years since Canada’s Access to Information Act came into effect. But despite repeated mandatory statutory reviews of the law under both Liberal and Conservative governments, as well as continued advocacy by a host of journalism and transparency groups, few knocks have been made on the seemingly impenetrable wall of government secrecy that exists. in Canada.
“Since becoming President of @caj last summer,” writes @Brent_T_Jolly, “I’ve had a front row seat to see how #COVID19 has not only crippled the health of Canadian citizens, but damaged the health democracy in Canada.” #PressFreedomDay
Despite the manufacture grand promises on bolstering government transparency in past campaigns, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s commitments have doublespeak.
While there is little indication that the situation in Ottawa will improve anytime soon, especially given the glacial pace of the latest Treasury Board review, the overarching point is clear: how can a broken system be fixed? ? And, if possible, what does it actually look like?
The urgency of answering this question is paramount, especially when we consider how many provinces are following in the footsteps of the federal government.
Take a look at Manitoba’s proposed Bill 49 which, if approved, would increase the response time for citizen inquiries to 90 days from the current 30-day limit. It would be the longest wait in Canada.
In British Columbia, too, criticism has been leveled at the provincial government for its lackluster and proactive release of critical pandemic information.
Enough is enough.
Since becoming President of the Canadian Association of Journalists last summer, I have seen first-hand how COVID-19 has not only crippled the health of Canadian citizens, but also damaged the health of democracy. in Canada.
I’ve spoken to reporters about how they experienced some of the most deplorable and dehumanizing displays of public antipathy I could have ever imagined, even in my darkest nightmares.
I have seen assaults on Canadian journalists, such as those suffered by CBC News photojournalist Ben Nelms or TVA journalist Kariane Bourassa. Last year also revealed how law enforcement tried to prevent journalists from doing their work in places such as 1492 Land Back Lane, near Caledonia, Ontario, or in Wet’suwet territory. in British Columbia.
What’s just as bad, however, is that these attacks aren’t limited to the physical world. Many other journalists, especially women and people of color, are threatened with violence, hateful rhetoric and racist epithets delivered directly to them through their online channels and digital devices at all hours of the day and night. night.
Contrary to what some might tell you, journalists are human beings. And little by little, these attacks can be exhausting and begin to erode sanity and the will to report on certain topics.
These factors are worth mentioning as they provide startling details of the many personal and institutional challenges Canadian journalists have faced in 2020. Indeed, they tell compelling stories of a dedication to truth, transparency and to public service that cannot be captured in a single score.
While journalists in Canada certainly do not face the same existential fears as their counterparts in places like Russia, Syria or Afghanistan, that does not preclude the need for sweeping and transformative change.
Around the world, May 3 is often circled on the calendars of many journalists, editors and press freedom advocates as World Press Freedom Day. With this year’s theme being “Information as a Public Good”, I hope that Canadian journalists will use this day to undertake two important tasks.
First, take stock of the immense challenges that have been overcome over the past year and recognize a job well done. Second, and most importantly, take a moment to re-imagine how, in the future, we can all better navigate the obstacles in our way and blaze a new, more prosperous path.
Things can be better. And they must. The future of the Canadian public’s right to know is at stake.
Brent Jolly is the National President of the Canadian Association of Journalists.