The threats to press freedom in Canada and the world
News industry bedevilled by deepening political polarization, disinformation, harassment and growth of AI
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Last week marked the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993 to reinforce the intrinsic relationship of a free press to all other human rights.
What better time to reflect on the state of journalism in Canada and abroad?
Some thoughts and updates:
So much has changed in the news media landscape over the last 30 years. Independent, fact-based journalism has been increasingly challenged, first by a digital revolution that upended business models and content creation, leading to smaller newsrooms, layoffs and so-called "local news deserts."
More recently, the news industry has been bedevilled by deepening political polarization, disinformation, growing distrust in institutions like the mainstream media, the harassment of journalists and the emergence of artificial intelligence. (Do check out last week's As It Happens interview with the Canadian "godfather" of AI, Geoffrey Hinton. More CBC News analysis of his stark warnings can be found here.)
Against that backdrop, authoritarian regimes have moved to restrict, censor or thwart independent journalism. More than 560 journalists and media workers are imprisoned, according to Reporters Without Borders, including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested and jailed in Russia in late March on espionage charges. (Rosemary Barton recently spoke to the newspaper's chief news editor about his case. Watch here.)
Gershkovich's arrest took place amid a crackdown on independent media in Russia in recent years, more acute since its invasion of Ukraine. New laws restrict what can be said about the war. Many journalists have fled the country. CBC/Radio-Canada itself was forced to shut down its Moscow bureau by Russian officials who accused Canada of "open attacks on the Russian media." The closure in May 2022 ended 44 years of continuous presence in the country of CBC journalists.
Not surprisingly, Russia fell nine places, to 164, on the annual 2023 World Press Freedom Index released last week by Reporters Without Borders, which evaluates the environment for journalism in 180 countries. India's press freedom rating fell to 161 on the index, a story CBC News correspondent Salimah Shivji explored from our new Mumbai bureau.
At the very bottom of the press freedom index are Vietnam, China and North Korea. The Top 3 are Norway, Ireland and Denmark. Canada was up four spots from last year to rank 15th.
Harassment of journalists
While Canada gets a "satisfactory" ranking on the press freedom index, the harassment of journalists and media professionals online and in real life here is an ongoing problem. The abuse, hate speech, threats and vandalism aimed at reporters and their news organizations is meant to intimidate and silence. It is an attack on press freedom.
CBC/Radio-Canada continues to work with other news organizations to raise public awareness of these threats and to ensure the safety of our staff. We have also created this #NotOK website as an industry resource.
At the heart of press freedom is the understanding no external government, group or special interest should influence a news organization's journalism.
A few weeks ago, Twitter CEO Elon Musk labelled the CBC's Twitter account as "government-funded," along with several other public broadcasters around the world, prompting a swift response. A number of broadcasters, including CBC/Radio-Canada, paused their activity on their official Twitter accounts or announced they're leaving the platform.
As I noted at the time, the controversy is not really about delineating how public broadcasters are funded. (For the record, CBC/Radio-Canada as a Crown corporation received more than $1.2 billion in federal funding in 2021-22, and generated another $650 million by other means, such as advertising, subscriptions and syndication of its content.)
Rather, the problem is that Twitter's posted definition of "government-funded" referred to outlets that "may have varying degrees of government involvement over editorial content." And Musk has on several occasions linked government funding to state influence and media bias.
No government has involvement or influence on the journalism of CBC News and Radio-Canada Info, our French-language service. CBC's editorial independence is enshrined in Canada's Broadcasting Act, and also its publicly available journalistic standards and practices (JSP), to which the news divisions are held accountable by independent ombudsmen.
After we paused our Twitter activity, our account's label was changed three times, before it disappeared — all in the space of a week.
To be clear, CBC News has been reviewing and adjusting its social media strategy for more than a year, long before these sudden changes at Twitter, which also included the abandonment of its verification program for accounts. Our focus remains on social platforms that prioritize healthy communities and or provide us better opportunities to grow new audiences.
Today, we will resume some activity on a handful of umbrella Twitter accounts, including @CBCNews, but we will significantly reduce our overall Twitter footprint and continue to assess the platform against our strategy.
Despite many challenges from inside and outside Canada, CBC's commitment to independent, fact-based journalism is steadfast.
Democracies live or die by the health of their independent news media; freedom and a free press are mutually dependent.
- This blog has been updated to note Canada got a “satisfactory” ranking in the 2023 press freedom index. An earlier version incorrectly stated the 2023 ranking was “good.”May 14, 2023 8:18 AM ET