By Duncan Pike
At Sunday night’s Golden Globes ceremony, Meryl Streep used her acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award to denounce President-Elect Donald Trump, and to call on the audience to support the work of a free and independent press. "We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call [Trump] on the carpet for every outrage," Streep said. "That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in the Constitution."
Streep's plea came during a time of intense anxiety among many American journalists, who see in the impending Trump presidency a threat to historically robust protections for press freedom in the United States. Early in his campaign, Trump famously said, "I'm going to open up our libel laws, so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money." Trump made antagonism towards the "crooked media" a centrepiece of his campaign, regularly directing anger towards members of the press corps covering his rally, and at one point even saying, "I'm not running against crooked Hillary Clinton. I'm running against the crooked media. That's what I'm running against."
This is some of what prompted Streep to issue the following plea from the stage: "Join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), because we’re gonna need them going forward, and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth." CPJ is one the of the world’s leading press freedom organizations, which CJFE is proud to work with through the Journalists in Distress (JID) network. The JID network primarily provides emergency financial assistance to applicants outside of North America, where press freedom and the lives of journalists are most at risk.
Given the potential dangers of the Trump presidency, CPJ and other civil liberties groups in the U.S. are preparing to devote significantly more resources to protecting press freedom in America. They will need the support that Streep called for.
It is common for Canadians to believe that we are above the various dysfunctions marring American civil society, and to indulge in the consolation that, however bad things get in the up North, at least it’s better than down there. This is dangerous complacency. Despite the, ah, stylistic differences between our Prime Minister and the incoming American President, press freedom in Canada will need to be defended every bit as vigorously in 2017 as in the United States.
Here are five of the biggest threats to press freedom we face in Canada:
1. VICE News reporter Ben Makuch could go to jail for protecting his sources
In March 2016 the Ontario Superior Court upheld a production order forcing VICE News reporter Ben Makuch to turn over all communications between him and Farah Shirdon, a source who had allegedly joined the Islamic State. This sets a ruinous precedent with dangerous implications for press freedom and the integrity of journalism in Canada, and undermines one of the foundational principles of journalism: the protection of sources.
By appealing this ruling, Makuch is standing up for every journalist who believes that source protection is fundamental to a free and independent press, and CJFE is standing with him. We’re intervening in the appeal, and have launched the #ProtectPressFreedom campaign to push back against this egregious assault on journalism. Hearings for Makuch’s appeal start on February 6.
On February 4 we’re organizing a National Day of Action on Spying, Surveillance and Press Freedom to draw attention to the case, push back against police overreach and the assault on press freedom, and agitate for a shield law for the protection of sources. Join us in cities across Canada, online, and at your Member of Parliament’s office.
2. Quebec journalists like Patrick Lagacé have been put under police surveillance
La Presse reporter Patrick Lagacé, as well as ten other Quebec journalists, had their phones surveilled by Quebec and Montreal police in an effort to identify their sources. The warrants were requested as part of an internal investigation into misdoing by officers who investigate street gangs and drug trafficking. The expansion of the warrants to include surveillance of journalists is a grim indication of the state of press freedom and whistleblower protections in Canada. Quebec has launched a wide-ranging public inquiry into police spying on journalists, and will issue its report in early 2018.
3. Quebec police seized reporter Michael Nguyen’s computer
The Sûreté du Québec (Quebec’s provincial police service) seized Journal de Montréal reporter Michael Nguyen’s computer in September 2016 after he published a story alleging that Judge Suzanne Vadboncoeur acted abusively towards constables at a Montreal courthouse during a Christmas party in 2015. This seizure of equipment is an unacceptable violation of press freedom, and an act of intimidation against a reporter simply for doing his job. Nguyen’s story on the conduct of a provincial judge is in the public interest, and the judicial council should focus on the subject of the investigation rather than the source of the video. If journalists are seen as tools of the justice system, sources with information of public importance may not come forward and public interest stories may never be told.
4. Newfoundland reporter Justin Brake faces court order threatening arrest for covering protest
Justin Brake, reporter-editor for Newfoundland’s The Independent, was served with a court order in October 2016 threatening his arrest if he did not leave the Muskrat Falls construction site, where he was covering the occupation and protest by indigenous activists. The order is a clear violation of press freedom and an unacceptable assault on the public’s right to know. The court order for Brake follows the recent trespassing and riot charges filed against Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman for reporting on pipeline protests in North Dakota. Three independent documentary filmmakers also face significant jail time for reporting on the same protests.
These incidents form a disturbing pattern of legal intimidation against journalists and media workers covering controversies over resource development projects and indigenous-led protests. Journalists sometimes cover actions that may be illegal, and threatening them with arrest for being physically present to report on these types of stories inevitably means that more of them will not be covered in the future. It is essential that journalists be able to safely and freely cover events in the public interest, such as the occupation of Muskrat Falls, without fear of legal reprisals.
5. Bill C-51 and the ongoing threat of Canadian national security laws to free expression
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government formed in October 2015 with a promise to amend the worst aspects of Bill C-51 (Anti-terrorism Act, 2015). Over a year has passed and we’re still waiting for change. This dangerous legislation has disturbing implications for free speech, privacy and civil liberties, and has been widely criticized by experts and Canadians across the country as being reckless, dangerous and ineffective. It can and does affect all Canadians, every day.
Hanging over all of the incidents above is a climate of hostility and mistrust from law enforcement and intelligence agencies towards the institutions of independent civil society. Bill C-51 is this mistrust hardened and codified into law. CJFE and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) filed a Charter challenge in July 2015 on the grounds that sections of the legislation violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The lawsuit is currently in court pending a response from the government. If they don’t act to undo the unconstitutional aspects of Bill C-51, we will.
CJFE works every day to push back against the assault on press freedom in Canada. Please consider becoming a member today.
Duncan Pike is CJFE's Campaigns and Advocacy Coordinator.