The cloud that hovers over Canadian journalists’ freedom to report the truth has a silver lining.
But even clouds with silver linings sometimes bring rain, and Canadian journalists need to be prepared for the storm that sometimes breaks over their heads.
Worldwide, the harassment, intimidation and murder of journalists has reached epic proportions, with 100 media workers being killed in the last 18 months in the line of duty.
But unlike in many other countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Myanmar, media workers in Canada who expose government scandal or corporate corruption not only live to tell their stories, but sometimes see their work catalyzing positive change in their communities.
However, Canadian journalists are not free from more subtle forms of intimidation and harassment, even though our politicians routinely sing the praises of press freedom as a cornerstone of democracy, and smugly criticize foreign countries where journalists are jailed or gunned down for doing their jobs.
“Canada condemns anyone who in any way intimidates and harasses journalists working in defence of the truth, and we will seize every opportunity to speak up and defend press freedom,” Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement issued on May 3, designated by UNESCO as World Press Freedom Day.
Reality, however, is somewhat at odds with the rhetoric.
Canada was ranked 18th in the 2019 Report Without Borders world press freedom index, behind such countries as Jamaica, Costa Rica and Ireland, but ahead of the U.S. which has slipped to 48th place in the wake of President Trump’s vehement anti-press rhetoric.
Cracks in the façade of press freedom in Canada came to light at a gala luncheon celebration held recently in Ottawa in honour of May 3, the UNESCO-designated World Press Freedom Day.
Hosted by the Ottawa-based Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom in partnership with the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, the event— like similar ones around the world— honour journalists who have defended press freedom, often at great personal cost, and raise awareness of the importance of an independent press.
Keynote speaker at the Ottawa event, Stephen Adler, editor-in-chief of Reuters, had praise for Canada while comparing the state of press freedom here with that of other countries, including his own, the U.S.
“In the US, our President derides us (journalists) as ‘enemies of the people,” he said, adding that the buzz word ‘fake news’ coined by a member of the Trump administration is nothing but a euphemism for unwanted news.
“Canada looks better by comparison. It helps that your Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland is a former Reuters journalist,” he said, drawing laughter and applause from the audience.
Canadian journalists are also fortunate in comparison with the two Myanmar journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Oo who are behind bars for reporting on human rights abuses perpetrated against Rohingyas, an ethnocultural minority in their home country.
Adler described the plight of these two Reuters employees as a “global disgrace,” adding that the efforts of global leaders had failed to overturn their sentence.
Ddespite Adler’s assessment, and the stated and implied comparisons with other countries, the event was not only a celebration of courage in journalism, but also a sober reminder that there is no room for complacency in Canada.
The challenges faced by Michael Robinson, reporter with The Telegraph Journal in St. John, New Brunswick and winner of the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom’s (CCWPF’s) Press Freedom Award 2019, underscore the point.
As he accepted his award at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa. Robinson did not dwell on his own trials and tribulations as a journalist in Canada. Instead, he paid tribute to colleagues around the world who lost their lives or were subjected to severe punishment for doing their jobs.
“We remember journalists like Lyra McKee,” Robinson said to the gathering that included parliamentarians, ambassadors, editors, publishers and other dignitaries of the political and media worlds. (Mckee was the 29-year old Irish journalist who was shot to death by an anti-peace process radical when violence erupted in Derry at Easter.)
Robinson’s case— though not as dramatic as that of McKee or Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi Arabian journalist who was brutally murdered in Saudi consulate in Istanbul— nevertheless brings into sharp focus the threats and intimidation Canadian journalists sometimes face as they attempt to report facts that the public needs to know.
“Robinson’s tenacious investigation— despite the provincial government’s efforts to block him by taking him to court— exposed a well-guarded secret and dangerous practice in the medical transport service in New Brunwick,” said Shawn McCarthy, President of CCWPF, who presented the award.
“Writing more than 40 stories on the critical shortage of paramedics and ambulance services in the province, Robinson’s work ultimately spurred changes in the medical system including increased hiring of staff, and more transparency in reporting,” McCarthy said.
Marie-Maude Denis, with Enquête of Radio-Canada, received an Honourable Mention for her protracted legal fight to protect the confidentiality of sources she used for a story that led to the prosecution of several former Quebec Liberal government officials on corruption charges.
The Supreme Court of Canada will hear Denis’ case after the Quebec Superior Court ordered her to reveal the names of confidential sources.
As Robinson pointed out, violating the confidentiality of sources is another threat to journalists’ freedom to investigate and bring the truth to their audiences.
“Without sources who trusted me to tell their stories, I couldn’t have done my job,” he said.
Another reminder that all is not perfect in the Canadian media landscape came from Ken Rubin, winner of the Spencer Moore Award for lifetime achievement (for upholding access to information rights). Rubin had scathing words for Canadian politicians, bureaucrats and others “whose secrecy practices are so prevalent.”
Described by CBC journalist Dean Beeby as the “godfather of access to information in Canada,” Rubin, a Senior Fellow at Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression, knows whereof he speaks. A tireless advocate for access to information, he has worked on amending the federal Access Act to penalize officials for altering records.
“Canada has drastically fallen behind, and the Trudeau government is passing regressive amendments that exclude forever prime ministerial and ministers’ records,” he said, referring specifically to Bill C-58, which is soon heading back to the House of Commons for another reading.
“No matter what happens (to Bill C-58), it’s clear the government deferred to the reflexive secrecy of the bureaucracy and broke its election promises,” Beeby said in an interview.
As the great Irish orator and lawyer, John Philpot Curran said in a speech in Dublin in 1790: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”
This is as relevant to the Fourth Estate in Canada today as it has even been —because it is 2019, and the “sunny ways” and transparency promised by the Trudeau Liberals have yet to brighten our media landscape.
Susan Korah is an Ottawa-based journalist with a special interest in freedom of religion and expression, and Middle Eastern minority issues.