Bad year for free speech in Canada: report

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has published its first annual
report on free expression in Canada, and the verdict isn’t pretty:
police detaining and impersonating journalists, publication bans,
blocked access to information and free-speech issues surrounding the
Vancouver Olympics… it’s been a tough year for journalists.

CJFE free expression report
Citing “a remarkable year for free expression issues in Canada,” Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) has published its first annual report on free expression.

Released today, on International Press Freedom Day (May 3), The 2009 Free Expression Review: An annual report on the health of free expression in Canada addresses the climate for free expression in Canada, attacks on journalists, publication bans, access to information and related concerns such as police impersonating journalists and free-speech issues surrounding this winter’s Olympics in Vancouver.

“Free speech is hot,” says Bob Carty, a CBC radio producer and CJFE board member. “It’s risen above the radar. Just look at the past year.

“In Afghanistan a Canadian journalist was killed while trying to inform Canadians about a war with their name attached to it. Ottawa refused to release information that’s readily available in the United States about torture in Afghanistan. Journalists heading to the Olympics were stopped at the border and sometimes turned away because they might say something critical about the Games.

“There were wild accusations about hate speech during the Ottawa visit of right-wing commentator Ann Coulter. And in 2009 alone, the Supreme Court of Canada considered or ruled on eight major cases dealing with free expression issues.”

The 40-page report includes a report card on key freedom of expression issues.

The highest grade is an A to the Supreme Court of Canada, which “met all our expectations in establishing the defence of ‘responsible communications,’ … bringing Canada up to the standard of other nations,” the report says. But it goes on to note that much will depend on how lower courts apply this defence.

A Dec. 22 Supreme Court ruling on libel cases against two newspapers (Grant v. Torstar and Quan v. Cusson established that journalists, writers and bloggers who fairly and responsibly cover matters of public interest can rely on a “responsible communication” defence. “Though still not as protective as the American model, the defence allows Canadian journalists to escape liability if they can show they diligently attempted to prove the facts,” says the report.

The report card also includes two Fs. One goes to the federal government for its record on access to information. “We remain bedevilled by the antics of those federal entities that invoke national security at the drop of a hat to restrict the dissemination of vital information to journalists and, in turn, the public,” says the report.

The second F grade is for attacks on the press and impunity, based on attacks on the ethnic press and the 11-year failure to bring anyone to justice for the murder of Tara Singh Hayer, founder and publisher of the Indo-Canadian Times.

The Free Expression Review also expresses guarded optimism about Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which allows human rights commissions to fine individuals and media outlets for statements meant to incite feelings of hatred or contempt that lead to discrimination.

The section has led to complaints against publications, such as one against Maclean’s magazine for publishing an excerpt from right-wing commentator Mark Steyn’s book America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, suggesting the threat of an Islamicized Europe. The complaint was not upheld.

In September, in hearing a complaint against right-wing blogger Marc Lemire, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Section 13 is inconsistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but the ruling is not binding beyond the Lemire case and is awaiting review in Federal Court.

“We believe that when the statements of racists do not promote violence,” the CJFE report says, “the best way to deal with those statements is  to forcefully and publicly denounce them.”

The Vancouver Olympics raised repeated free expression concerns, including assaults on two Toronto Sun journalists covering the torch relay in Newmarket, Ont., the detention and questioning of U.S. journalist Amy Goodman  on her way into Canada in November, the questioning of U.S. journalist Dawn Zuppelli at Vancouver airport in February as she entered the country to cover Olympic protests, and border officials’ refusal to allow Martin Macias Jr. and John Weston Osburn, both freelance journalists, to enter the country.

The report also takes note of the kidnappings of four Canadian journalists abroad and the death of Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang in Afghanistan.

In the article “Will Free Speech Get Caught in the Web?“, Paul Knox, chair of the journalism school at Ryerson University, examines concerns raised by a shift to digital media. While offering individuals new ways to communicate, he writes, this digital revolution also threatens to deprive traditional media of the resources to do investigative journalism and hold public officials accountable. And the new media aren’t always as accessible or as free as they appear.

CJFE hopes the review will become “an annual reference document for examining developments in free expression in Canada and for comparing ourselves with other countries.” Carty says it will provide “a tool to help us keep track of whether we’re moving forward or backward.”