World Press Freedom Day: Time to reflect on the state of our rights in Canada

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Today marks World Press Freedom Day. On this day, countries all around the world, from Burma, to Egypt, to Venezuela, are fighting to establish this fundamental cornerstone of democracy. These countries are not taking these crucial freedoms for granted.

But in Canada, a country most assume already has an unfettered press—how should we mark World Press Freedom Day? If we value press freedom, we all need to take a closer look at the state of these rights here at home. When we look beyond the words of the Charter to the daily reality for working journalists, we see a gradual erosion of freedoms. And our government is a contributing factor.

Some people say that when it comes to protecting free expression, the media are like the canaries in the coal mines—the first indicators of threats to all of our free expression rights and freedoms. Frankly, our canaries are showing distinct signs of stress, and a significant part of it is due to the federal government’s obsession with controlling information, and shaping its message.

Consider that since 2007, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced a policy forcing journalists to go through media relations instead of speaking directly to scientists about their research, there has been an 80% drop in climate-change related stories in the press.

Consider that it took 18 months for Health Canada to release its study of H1N1 to the Winnipeg Free Press after the paper’s initial Access to information (ATI) request. Or that such a complicated request was even needed, to obtain a crucial document Canadians paid for to study the link between poor water quality and H1N1 incidence in a First Nations community.

Consider that it took 11 people and dozens of e-mails at the National Research Council to decide how to respond to an interview request from an Ottawa reporter for an article about U.S.-Canadian research on snowstorms. A request that was ultimately refused. And with just one phone call, the same reporter got a 15-minute interview with a scientist at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the organization that collaborated on the study.

Consider that at an international polar conference in Montreal last week, Canada was the only country whose scientists were deemed to require media chaperones.

Consider that the number of Access to Information exemptions on national security grounds has tripled since 2002-2003.

So here we are on World Press Freedom Day, in 2012. Never have so many billions of people enjoyed access to such a vast range of ideas, facts and statistics, and the creations of their fellow human beings. Yet our government seems hell-bent on controlling, concealing, distorting and making it impossible for some journalists to do their jobs—even though press freedom is supposedly protected by our Charter, the highest law of the land.

Today CJFE launches its annual Review of Free Expression in Canada. The Review surveys this country’s performance over the last 12 months, but it’s also an invitation to reflect on why press freedom is important. Not just for those other countries we see on the news. Not just for journalists, who can’t write or broadcast stories without access to the information they need. But for all of us.

We must be able to read the stories and hear the opinions that would otherwise stay hidden. We need to hear a variety of viewpoints, both popular and unpopular. We may not agree with many or even most of them, but we need to hear them to be fully functioning citizens of a democracy.

We cannot afford to be complacent. We celebrate the newly-won liberty of countries that have overthrown their dictators. We support the efforts of others to follow the same path. But we risk losing our own liberties if we fail to speak out against the choking off of access to information and the muzzling of experts in our own backyard.

Arnold Amber, CJFE President