The Sunday Magazine

The press isn't entirely free in Canada - Michael's essay

In light of the sentencing of James Sears, editor and publisher of a hateful publication, Michael Enright reflects upon freedom of the press in Canada and the roles of journalists globally.
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered on the October 2 2018. The reporter had been an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia. (Virginia Mayo/The Associated Press)

Late last month, the Supreme Court of Canada put some legal muscle, sort of, behind the right of a Canadian journalist to protect a confidential source.

At the same time, though, it said that reporters could be ordered to reveal a source if that source knowingly provided false information.

The decision came as the first test of a federal law called the Journalistic Sources Protection Act.

Why, you might very well ask, do journalists need such a law?

Well, without sources there is no journalism, and without guaranteed protections, there are no sources.

If we really believed in a truly free press, we wouldn't throw publishers in jail for the words they publish - Michael Enright

But before we reporters crack open another Jeroboam of bubbly in celebration, let's remember that the press isn't entirely free in this country.

In late August, a Toronto judge sentenced the editor of a small newspaper to a year in jail.

To call the rag a newspaper is stretching reason. It is a vile hate sheet which publishes anti-Semitic garbage, and ridicules women and gays. It is sewage in print.

The odd thing about the fact that a man was sentenced to lose his liberty for a year for printing nasty things, was that it caused barely a ripple in the halls of Toronto journalism.

The only reporter I could find with the grit to denounce the court's action was Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee.

He wrote: "None of the usual guardians of free speech seemed to find it even a little troubling." 

James Sears, 55, was found guilty in January of two counts — promoting hatred against women and Jews — for the contents of 22 issues of Your Ward News. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

Judging from the "thunderous silence," he said, they must consider it perfectly acceptable to send the editor to jail and put the publisher under house arrest for a year.

The judge's decision comes at a particularly parlous time for journalists and the idea of a free press.

Inside our courtrooms, judges have been leaning more and more to publication bans denying the public the right, and it is a right, to know what is going on inside them.

If we really believed in a truly free press, we wouldn't throw publishers in jail for the words they publish.

To many, this seems rather puny when positioned alongside what is happening to reporters, and the functioning of free journalism, in other parts of the world.

Around the world, reporters and editors are being arrested, tortured, silenced — even murdered.

Hatice Cengiz (centre), the fiancee of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and CEO of Amazon and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos (left) stand by a memorial stone during an event marking the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Khashoggi. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

The 2019 World Press Freedom index this year found that hatred of journalists has degenerated into violence. The number of countries considered safe for journalists has continued to decline.

Last October, we heard of the gruesome murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

This past spring, Irish journalist Lyra McKee was murdered in Derry by a dissident IRA cell.

The numbers suggest that a free press is gradually scaling down to a few countries in the West.

But even in the US, where local newspapers are dying, the country's leader calls reporters "enemies of the people" and says they traffic in fake news. The result is that Trump rallies have turned into beat-the-press meetings which could easily boil over into violence.

Journalist Lyra McKee is shown in a 2017 file photo at an event in Italy. She was killed in Derry, Northern Ireland after gunfire erupted before the Easter Rising commemorative parades. (Francesco Cuoccio/EPA-EFE)

Violence such as the murder of five employees of the Capital Gazette last year in Annapolis. 

The cops called it a targeted shooting. Jailing a hatemonger in Toronto does nothing to reduce hate in this country.

But it does reduce, albeit slightly, the idea that a free press is something more than a slogan. 

That in some parts of the world, it is life and death. All the more reason to make sure we protect it here.

Click 'listen' above to hear Michael's essay. 


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