Press freedom in Canada is under attack too

We worry about eroding rights for press in countries like Russia, Egypt and even the United States. But we need to pay attention to what's happening at home. Al Donato

On 2017;s World Press Freedom Day, prime minister Justin Trudeau stated that journalistic freedom was “widely recognized and respected in Canada.” But our track record tells a different story.

In his father’s time as the nation’s leader, press freedom was enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Over 30 years later, legal media protections have made slow progress. For doing their jobs, the Canadian media faces invasive surveillance, the risk of imprisonment, and government obstruction.

An annual index from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) revealed that press freedom in Canada had plummeted. The 2017 report card by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) gave Canada failing grades over surveillance of journalists and a lack of protection for whistleblowers.

While journalism is not a crime, journalists can become criminalized. This was never more apparent than with the wrongful conviction of journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who was sentenced to seven years in a maximum security prison in Egypt. The Egyptian-born Canadian, along with his Al-Jazeera colleagues, became international examples of what happens when journalists are jailed for being journalists. The CBC documentary Mohamed Fahmy: Half Free covers his tumultuous fight for freedom, at times both overlooked and endangered by the Canadian government. 

SCENE FROM THE FILM: There are currently more than 1400 Canadians imprisoned abroad.

Since his pardon and release, Fahmy and wife Marwa Omara have dedicated themselves to The Fahmy Foundation, advocating for the unjustly detained. “Canadians are being jailed for crimes they didn’t commit. And journalists are being thrown into prison and killed, not just in the Middle East, all over the place,” Fahmy told the CBC. 

Canada is no haven for press freedom

Canada ranked 22nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index, falling four spots from 2016. Canada’s press freedom ranking dramatically dropped 10 spots, from eighth to 18th place, in 2015. This followed what RSF called a “Dark Age” under former prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and its tight-lipped media policies, the two-time recipient of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Code of Silence award.  RSF didn’t mince words for 2017, blaming a “series of scandals” for Canada’s current standing.

One scandal involves VICE reporter Ben Makuch, who may be jailed for refusing to grant RCMP access to his records from a 2013 interview with an alleged ISIS fighter. After an Ontario Court of Appeal decision upheld the RCMP’s request, Makuch told CBC’s As It Happens that he and Vice Media are prepared to appeal the Supreme Court. “It is inconceivable that we have to stand here today in Canada, calling on our government agencies to respect press freedom,” Fahmy said in a press statement, speaking on Makuch’s circumstances. “Such breach of our rights as Canadians and journalists sets a dangerous precedent.” Most recently, VICE Canada released a statement asking for the RCMP and Canadian government to stop pursuing Makuch’s records, since it was discovered that the alleged fighter died in late 2015.

Justin Brake was arrested after covering an Indigenous-led protest at a Muskrat Falls construction site for The Independent in 2016. News of his custody was met with outrage from several press freedom advocacy groups. Brake, who faces up to a decade in prison if convicted, has pled not guilty to contempt and mischief charges, with his civil charge hearing pending. "If there's a conviction here, and journalism is criminalized when journalists have to tell stories of public significance on private property … that closes a lot of space in Canada where stories cannot be told,” Brake told CBC.

The report also criticizes Montreal police for spying on seven journalists. News broke in late 2016 that police used search warrants to access the journalists’ outgoing/incoming phone records. One of the journalists, La Presse’s Patrick Lagacé, was being tracked via his iPhone’s GPS.

Shield laws, which have provided legal safety measures for journalists in the U.S. and European countries, don’t yet exist in Canada. Laws that explicitly protect source identities are absent too. That may change with the Journalistic Sources Protection Act. Put forward as Bill S-231 by Conservative senator Claude Carignan after the discovery of Montreal police surveillance, it proposes amending both the Criminal Code and the Canada Evidence Act to protect the privacy of journalists and their sources. By becoming Canada’s first national shield law, it would make a journalist’s communications and notes harder to seize by law enforcement.