This report first appeared in CJFE's 2016-17 Review of Free Expression in Canada.
Last year we reported on potential improvements in Canada’s free expression landscape. Unfortunately, these changes have largely stalled. The federal government has taken some concrete action, such as launching public consultations on national security. However, electoral promises such as reforming Canada’s long-neglected access to information system have failed to materialize.
Trump-style politics are moving north, leading to decreased trust in the media and increased divisiveness in society. Mass layoffs of journalists mean Canadians are losing sources for reliable information at a time when fake news is spreading like a virus across social media. But hope is far from lost. Canadians see threats approaching and are fighting back by contacting MPs, signing petitions, marching in rallies and raising their voices. The future is uncertain and free expression faces dire threats, but Canadians will not sit back and let their rights be eroded.
GOVERNMENT PROGRESS ON BILL C-51
Our federal government came to power promising to “balance” national security and human rights, despite having voted in favour of Bill C-51 (now the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015) when it was passed in 2015. Over the past year, Justin Trudeau’s government has embarked on consultations to amend national security legislation, and in February it released the results. Canadians want change, and CJFE’s sources within the federal bureaucracy say a swath of amendments is likely to come in the next few months. The government has announced it will introduce new national security legislation this spring. That said, at publication time no official reforms have been announced. There’s also no guarantee that the amendments will effectively end overbroad and unconstitutional surveillance practices or bring meaningful accountability to our security agencies.
GOVERNMENT PROGRESS ON ACCESS TO INFORMATION (ATI)
Canada’s ATI system has been stagnant for decades and has all but crumbled in the past few years. We are at a point where, if a government official wants to hide public information, the chances of it being released are almost nil. Prime Minister Trudeau promised to change this during the last election. However, despite calls from all sectors of civil society and Canada’s information commissioner to create an exhaustive blueprint for change, the federal government has taken no action on fixing our access system. Worse, it announced in 2016 that it won’t even start consulting Canadians about changes to ATI until 2018 at the earliest. This is an inexcusable delay that we read as little more than crass politicking from a government that is comfortably in power and has little interest in making improvements that could lead to the release of potentially embarrassing secrets.
Ending Police Aggression Toward Journalists in Montreal
In the past, members of the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) beat reporters with batons, trampled them with horses, shot them with rubber bullets and arrested them arbitrarily for covering protests in the city. Following a concerted effort from CJFE, Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec (FPJQ), the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) and other groups, these incidents seem to have ended. The SPVM has acknowledged such abuses as unacceptable, apologized and amended its policies.
SHRINKING NEWSROOMS AND CONCENTRATION OF MEDIA OWNERSHIP
A disturbingly small number of companies owns nearly all the media in Canada. According to the International Media Concentration Project at Columbia University, Canada has the worst media concentration out of 28 developed nations. This means less diversity of opinions and a weakened ability to adapt to industry changes. In turn, journalism is put in jeopardy by stagnating business models, falling revenues and the layoffs of scores of journalists. Nowhere is this more obvious than at Postmedia Network Inc., which purchased the massive Canwest chain of newspapers in 2010. Since then, Postmedia, which is owned by an American hedge fund, has floundered financially. It’s closing newspapers and shrinking newsrooms across the country, leaving communities without reliable outlets, local coverage or scrutiny of people in power. Canada’s other media conglomerates, such as Rogers, Bell Media and Torstar, have also announced massive layoffs over the past year. As a result, Canadians are desperately underserved by the news media, a problem that’s likely to get worse as revenues continue to shrink.
PROTECTION OF WHISTLEBLOWERS
You’d have to be very brave to blow the whistle in Canada. Our private sector has no legislative protection whatsoever for employees who report corporate wrongdoing. Federal employees are ostensibly covered by the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, but it is laughably ineffective, and not a single whistleblower has successfully navigated the act’s useless tribunal system. Unfortunately, our federal government has no plans to rectify the situation, despite widespread calls from civil society groups. This likely means Canadians are being left in the dark about corporate and government wrongdoing.
POLICE SURVEILLANCE OF JOURNALISTS AND PROTECTION OF JOURNALISTIC SOURCES
We speculated it was happening, and in 2016 the public finally got proof. In a crass and undemocratic attempt to plug leaks, police surveilled La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé and at least seven other journalists in Quebec. That year it was also revealed that the RCMP tailed reporters in Ottawa, and police seized a reporter’s laptop in Montreal. VICE News national security reporter Ben Makuch is facing jail time after the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld an RCMP production order demanding his notes from a conversation he had with a suspected ISIS militant. VICE is now seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, where CJFE will again intervene in support of Makuch. And, because Canada is the only industrialized nation with no meaningful oversight of its spy agencies, Canadians have no idea how invasively CSIS and CSE are looking into their lives, or what laws the agencies may be breaking. This intimidation of journalists, broad digital surveillance of Canadians and fundamental lack of oversight do absolutely nothing to enhance national security. Instead, they take a sledgehammer to the pillars of our democracy: a free press, our right to privacy and our right to free expression. It is a nightmare scenario of Orwellian proportions that requires urgent action from all levels of government.
Canadians have traditionally relied on the news media to debunk falsehoods and provide fair, accurate reporting, but newspapers, magazines and broadcasters are hobbled by falling advertising rates and the loss of traditional revenue streams. Journalistic sources are drying up because of fears over government surveillance. This makes it harder for reporters to do their jobs, and it creates an opportunity for “alternative facts” and fake news sources to proliferate on social media. Clickbait headlines with little basis in reality truly do spread in a viral manner, and they erode the public’s trust in professional journalism outlets. The label “fake news” is now being applied to anything someone disagrees with, regardless of its veracity. With journalism under threat, it’s become much more challenging for Canadians to stay informed and for society to hold politicians and the powerful to account. How can we fight fake news without dropping the hammer of corporate or government censorship? It’s a new problem without a clear solution, and CJFE intends to monitor it closely.