American report on press freedom has implications for Canadian journalists

By Angela MacKenzie

A new report, Acts of Journalism—Defining Press Freedom in the Digital Age, stresses that the U.S. needs new policies to protect all acts of journalism committed by professional and citizen journalists.

By Angela MacKenzie

A new report, Acts of Journalism—Defining Press Freedom in the Digital Age, stresses that the U.S. needs new policies to protect all acts of journalism committed by professional and citizen journalists.

The author of the report, Josh Stearns, is the journalism and public media campaign director for Free Press. For the past four years, he has been following the press-freedom debates and how they affect new participants in journalism across the U.S. Stearns argues that it is no longer useful to differentiate between who is a journalist and who is not.

“Today, more people than ever are participating in journalism,” Stearns wrote in his report. “People are breaking news on Twitter, covering their communities on Facebook, livestreaming, distributing news via email and writing in-depth blogs on issues of civic and community significance. Some of these people are what we’d consider ‘traditional’ journalists working on new platforms, but many are not.”

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The Internet and recent advances in technology have made it easier for citizens to participate in journalism. However, the rights of these new participants aren’t necessarily protected. They may not know what is within their rights or how to stand up for their rights.

“The public are becoming more engaged in the process of journalism,” Stearns told J-Source. “We’re seeing where they’re running up against either outdated laws or unintended consequences or police action that reflect how our institutions haven’t caught up to the changes in our media system.”

The report looks at examples of acts of journalism being committed across America, such as the case of 19-year-old Karina Vargas who witnessed an act of police brutality in Oakland, Calif., and recorded it on her phone. The police tried to confiscate her camera after the incident but she refused to hand it over. Vargas faced threats from police throughout her efforts. Stearns notes that many journalists in today’s climate have faced pressure from corporations and governments.

The growing spectrum of individuals who commit acts of journalism are not limited to the U.S., of course. Canada’s journalism landscape also relies on the contribution of citizen journalists, with news organizations often crowdsourcing stories. All around the globe there are increasing accounts of citizens engaging in the process of journalism.

“We’re also at a point now where in places like Syria, journalists have had such a hard time reporting,” Stearns told J-Source. “They’ve been threatened and attacked so much there that we’ve relied to some extent on reports from citizen journalists and human rights organizations who have been on the ground longer.”

In the U.S., members of Congress have introduced the Free Flow of Information Act—a federal shield law meant to protect journalists and their sources. Much of the recent conversation around defining who is and who isn’t a journalist has come from the need to determine a definition for this bill. Stearns notes, however, that the shield law debate is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle of press freedom issues.

“Around the country there are non-profit journalists and online journalists who are being blocked from getting press credentials to cover local state houses or city government. There are live streamers who are getting arrested and thrown in jail. We have issues of anti-SLAPPlegislation that are being debated about frivolous lawsuits where a real-estate developer will go after a journalist and sue them just to silence them.”

Currently, Canada does not have a federal shield law in place—journalists have no guarantee that their sources will be protected. Public privacy and press freedoms continue to be challenged in Canada. In 2012, the Harper government attempted to pass Bill C-30, an internet surveillance bill that would allow authorities to track the online activity of all Canadians in real time. However, there was so much public outcry over the controversial bill that it was killed earlier this year.

During the 2012 “Maple Spring” student protests, the Quebec government introduced the controversial Bill 78. Critics felt portions of the law affected freedom of expression, of reunion and of peaceful association.

Stearns said that pursuing a shield law is a good thing. However, it can be limited given the state of mass surveillance happening in many countries, including the U.S. and Canada.

“The NSA here has been the focus of many stories, but we know this has been a global phenomenon where we see the rise of surveillance both by governments and also by commercial interests,” he said. “In this era our lawmakers and authorities don’t even need to subpoena journalists anymore or ask them to testify against their sources because they can just subpoena the meta data. Then they can just see who they’ve been calling and who they’ve been emailing.“

Although it’s important for journalists protect themselves online by practising “safe data hygiene” in their work, Stearns notes that it is also important to look at reforming certain laws in order to limit the kind of surveillance that inhibits good journalism. Stearns told J-Source he would like to see Canada and other nations take the seed of what he’s talked about in this report and look at where the same issues are arising in their own countries.

“Where are those red flags? Where are our laws out of step with how the media is made now and where is there risk where we might not be protecting the people that are part of the media system? It’s going to look different in every country but I think it’s a conversation that we need to be having in every country.”


Angela MacKenzie is a Montreal-based freelance writer as well as a graduate student and research assistant at Concordia University in the Department of Journalism. 



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