Canada: Increased Threats for Canadian Journalists

Friday, January 5, 1996

Canadian journalists faced threats to their livelihoods and to their lives in 1995, reports the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists in its annual report for 1995. Executive Director Wayne Sharpe called 1995 "an unprecedented year for attacks on Canadian journalists and against freedom of expression in this country."

On 1 August 1995, Ottawa sportscaster Brian Smith was shot in the head by an assailant who told police he was "angry at the media" and wished to cause harm to a media personality. Smith died the following day in hospital. Smith, a sportscaster with Ottawa's CJOH-TV, was shot as he left the station after the dinner-hour newscast. The confessed killer, Jeffrey Arenburg, waited in the CJOH-TV parking lot, and shot the first person he recognized as a media personality. The "Halifax Chronicle Herald" reported that the same man was convicted three years ago of assaulting a radio station employee in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia.

Freelance reporter Robert Monastesse, who was investigating a turf war between rival motorcycle gangs in Montreal, was shot in both legs in February. This was a clear warning that Monastesse's articles on bikers' drug dealing were not appreciated.

The CCPJ is concerned that members of the media are placed at risk because they work in the public eye, and often bear the blame for events they report to the public. The CCPJ has called for an investigation into the circumstances of Jeffrey Arenburg's history of violence against the media.

In addition to physical attacks, journalists in Canada faced attacks by the courts and by government for simply trying to do their work.

In Hull, Quebec, television cameraman Stephane Beaudoin was cited for contempt of court and jailed for a week for refusing to reveal a source. Although Beaudoin was subsequently fired after it was revealed he had fabricated parts of his story, Sharpe said a dangerous precedent had been set. "The case reminds us that, in Canada, journalists have no statutory right to protect the confidentiality of their sources, and the courts have refused to recognize anything more than a rather weak privilege."

In London, Ontario, freelance journalist Joseph Couture was harassed by members of the London Police during his investigation into their alleged child pornography probe, Project Guardian. Couture has taped evidence by some of the young men he interviewed for a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio programme who say they were questioned by the police and berated for their participation in the show. In October 1994, attempts failed to frame Couture for possession of pornography just before two men were arrested on pornography charges in an apparent sting operation. London Police Chief Julian Fantino has repeatedly threatened Couture, both in the media and in letters to the CCPJ. The Chief has also stymied attempts to investigate the behaviour of his force while Couture continues to be plagued by police surveillance and impediments to his investigations.

At the end of 1995, Ontario Premier Mike Harris introduced changes to provincial and municipal access to information legislation in a controversial Omnibus Bill, expected to be passed on 29 January 1996. If passed, the legislation would severely impair the ability of journalists to scrutinize the functioning of the government. Government agencies would be empowered to dismiss information requests as "frivolous and vexatious." Institutions would also be allowed to charge fees for requests, and to charge different amounts depending on who is making the request and what type of information is requested.

To fight the Omnibus Bill, the CCPJ has coordinated the formation of the Media Alliance for Access to Government Information (in Ontario), comprised of some 12 groups including PEN Canada and ARTICLE 19. The Alliance held a press conference at the provincial legislature in December and will take part in public hearings on the bill in January 1996.
Besides working on behalf of journalists in Canada, the CCPJ continues to work with journalists in the developing world, with projects in Malawi, Cambodia and Peru. In July, the CCPJ, in conjunction with the International Federation of Journalists, organized the "Media and Government: the Search for Solutions" conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It brought journalists and government officials together in an attempt to reach a common understanding and put an end to the violence that has erupted in that emerging democracy. The Final Declaration of the conference called for the establishment of national centres to monitor violations of the rights of journalists to "promote international solidarity through the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) network of freedom of expression organizations," a project managed by the CCPJ.

The CCPJ operates a Journalists in Distress Fund to aid journalists internationally, and also appeals to the Canadian government on a regular basis to grant asylum to journalists who have fled their countries due to repercussions for their work. In 1995, the CCPJ assisted journalists fleeing Kenya, Iran, Nigeria, Sudan and Croatia.

Members of the CCPJ occasionally provide us with valuable information about attacks on colleagues with whom they have worked internationally. In May, the CCPJ reported that Andre Sibomana, Editor-in-Chief of the Rwandan newspaper "Kinyamateka", had received death threats from a member of the security force and had either gone into hiding or had "disappeared." Due in part to lobbying by the CCPJ and its members, Sibomana came out of hiding a few days later, reporting that the letters calling for his protection sent to the Rwandan government and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) had ensured his survival. The CCPJ remains concerned that without sufficient international attention, particularly since the recent withdrawal of UNAMIR, attacks against Sibomana and other "Kinyamateka" contributors have resumed.

As manager of the IFEX Clearing House, the CCPJ recorded a total of 61 murders of writers and members of the media in 1995 from reports by member organizations of IFEX, a coalition of freedom of expression groups situated around the globe.