Press freedom in Canada eroded by post-9/11 obsession with security

The previous government ushered in what's been referred to as a "Dark Age" of Canadian journalism. But Steven Zhou says it remains to be seen whether the Trudeau government will protect press freedom, or sacrifice it in the name of security.

Canada needs an open media culture unafraid to challenge authority to prevent abuse of power, says Steven Zhou

Rallies were held across Canada in 2015 to protest the Conservative government's Anti-terrorism Law. Such legislation continues to put a chill on press freedom in Canada, says Steven Zhou. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Canada's news media are still living under the entrenched legacy of Stephen Harper — like everything and everyone else in this country.

The previous prime minister ushered in what the Paris-based press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders (known by its French acronym, RSF) refers to as a "Dark Age" of Canadian journalism.

Even with a change at the executive level, old habits that characterize the legacy of such an age haven't left Canada's institutions. Leaders don't stick around forever, but the policies they entrench usually outlast their tenure in office.

Harper made his government, along with all its bureaucracies and agencies, much less open to press inquiries. According to organizations like RSF and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, it remains to be seen whether or not Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will follow up on his rhetorical support for an open media culture — and thus for a rolling back of Harper-era media policies — with actual policies of his own.

Trudeau can perhaps start by disentangling his nation's highly bureaucratic Access to Information system, which has grown increasingly unresponsive and censorship-happy.

Justin Trudeau holds his first news conference as prime minister-designate at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Oct. 20, 2015. But Steven Zhou says it remains to be seen whether he'll follow through with actual policies to protect an open media culture. (Susana Mas/CBC)
Canada's former information commissioner, Suzanne Legault, complained two years ago that her office was running out of funding to investigate the huge pile of complaints she was getting with regards to the ATI request process.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the de-prioritization and assailment of journalism in Canada.

The scary contrast here is with the increasing threat to investigative reporting or meaningful journalism in general in a post-9/11 age of heavy-handed security laws.

This kind of legislation has created much more legal space for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to operate, sometimes virtually with impunity, in ways that, according to organizations like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, "violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

Such a climate calls for more scrutiny by the press when it comes to monitoring centres of power. Yet Canadians are witnessing the exact opposite trend.

At a time when CSIS has illegally kept a decade-worth of private civilian metadata and when the RCMP keeps hounding lawmakers for easier access to suspects' electronic devices, journalists at Montreal's La Presse were recently revealed to have been geo-tracked by local police and reporters like Newfoundland's Justin Brake are ending up on arrest lists simply for doing their job, like covering Indigenous-led protests.

Then there's Vice Media's Ben Makuch who's actually facing jail time for refusing to give the RCMP access to his electronic correspondence with a source who's alleged to have connections with ISIS.

Vice Media reporter Ben Makuch was ordered in March to turn over material to the RCMP related to interviews he did in 2014 with suspected terrorist Farah Shirdon of Calgary. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)
"I can't believe I live in Canada and this is happening," Makuch wrote earlier this year in an essay for Maclean's. Canadians who aspire to be more alert should share his sense of disbelief.

These are just some of the more prominent cases that have caught the national media's attention recently. Plenty of other cases dot the Canadian media landscape, which is already suffering internally due to budget cuts, business demands and a rocky transition into the "digital-first" era.  

These challenges, compounded with a security-heavy atmosphere that's suspicious of journalism, amount to an environment where the media are being assailed from all possible sides.

No wonder Canada dropped 10 spots in RSF's latest ranking of countries based on their performance with regards to press freedoms. Along with organizations like the U.S.-based Freedom House, which does its own assessment of the state of press freedoms in different countries, RSF cites concerns with Canada's recently passed security bills.

These include, among others, the Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act (Bill C-44), the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act (Bill C-13), and the Anti-terrorism Act (Bill C-51), all of which contain provisions that increase security agencies' surveillance authority while possibly curtailing free expression.

Abuse of power

How did Canada get here? It's a question that should be asked by anyone who's interested in an open society where information acts as both enabler and function of self-governance.

Both designations are being assailed right now due to a broad, post-9/11 tendency to pit security and safety against privacy and civil liberties. This dichotomy has to be broken by the very thing that it suppresses: information.

There's no giant pile of evidence to back the claims made by security agencies that more intrusion of personal privacy will lead unequivocally to a safer society. Nor are there enough cases of post-9/11 terrorism in the West — Canada particularly — to encourage the passing of broad new laws that have a blatant disregard for civil liberties.

And to do all this at the expense of an open media culture that's unafraid to challenge authority and to protect sources? It can only lead to more cases of state overreach and the abuse of power.

Steven Zhou is a Toronto writer and associate editor of The Islamic Monthly. He is a former volunteer with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.