Press freedom in Canada is more at risk than you might think

Verbal and physical violence, government obfuscation, and police searches, seizures and arrests are just a few of the occupational hazards many Canadians might think journalists encounter only when reporting on the underground activities of regimes. illiberal in faraway lands or when documenting atrocities taking place in global conflict zones.

The reality, however, is much darker. Just as 2020 has been a troubling year for journalists around the world, it is important to recognize that Canadian journalists are not immune to the backlash of increasingly hostile social and political environments that recklessly spread, a much like the pandemic, in the deepest corners of our communities.

At the end of April, Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based NGO dedicated to safeguarding the right to freedom of information around the world, published the 2021 edition of its World Press Freedom Index.

The annual index assesses 180 countries and territories against a multitude of qualitative and quantitative measures to produce an easily digestible dashboard where the performance of one country can be compared to that of another.

In this year’s poll, Canada placed 14th overall, an improvement of two places from last year. From a macro perspective, this sounds like a “good” news headline – and one that some makers hope you scan quickly, nod politely, and move on.

Canada, after all, has played a leadership role in the Global Coalition for Media Freedom. In partnership with the UK, it created a Media Freedom Award. And last November, he co-hosted, with Botswana, the World Conference on Media Freedom.

These are, without a doubt, commendable international efforts. But at the same time, these global exercises also highlight how the federal government continues to speak out loud, but with a big twig, about improving access to information and, more generally, freedom. from the press here.

Over the past 14 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed many uncomfortable truths that have shocked our own sense of moral virtue and, hopefully, will lead to significant change.

During a public health emergency, where access to quality information is more important than ever, many federal departments have instead used the pandemic as a foil for transparency.

It has been almost 40 years since Canada’s Access to Information Act came into force. But despite repeated mandatory statutory reviews of the law under Liberal and Conservative governments, as well as continued advocacy by a multitude of journalism and transparency groups, few successful bumps have been made in the seemingly impenetrable wall of government secrecy that exists in Canada.

“Since I became president of @caj last summer,” writes @Brent_T_Jolly, “I have had a front row seat to see how # COVID19 has not only crippled the health of Canadian citizens, but has also damaged the health of democracy in Canada. “#PressFreedomDay

Despite doing grandiose promises on strengthening government transparency in past campaigns, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s commitments exude double language.

While there is little indication that the situation in Ottawa will improve anytime soon, especially given the frigid pace of the last Treasury Board review, the crux of the matter is clear: how can a failed system ever be. repaired? And, if possible, what does it actually look like?

The urgency of answering this question is paramount, especially when one considers how several provinces are following in the footsteps of the federal government.

Take a look at Manitoba’s Bill 49 which, if approved, would increase the response time to citizen inquiries to 90 days from the current 30-day limit. It would be the longest wait in Canada.

In British Columbia, too, criticism has been leveled at the provincial government for its lackluster proactive publication of critical information related to the pandemic.

Enough is enough.

Since becoming President of the Canadian Association of Journalists last summer, I have had a front-row seat to see how COVID-19 has not only crippled the health of Canadian citizens, but has also damaged health. democracy in Canada.

I’ve spoken to reporters about how they experienced some of the most deplorable and dehumanizing manifestations of public antipathy I could have ever imagined, even in my darkest nightmares.

I have seen assaults on Canadian journalists, such as those suffered by CBC News photojournalist Ben Nelms or TVA reporter Kariane Bourassa. Last year also revealed how law enforcement attempted to prevent journalists from doing their jobs in places like 1492 Land Back Lane, near Caledonia, Ont., Or in Wet’suwet territory. in British Columbia.

What is equally serious, however, is that these attacks are not limited to the physical world. Many other journalists, especially women and people of color, are threatened with violence, hateful rhetoric and racist epithets delivered directly to them through their online channels and digital devices at all hours of the day and night. night.

Contrary to what some might tell you, journalists are human beings. And little by little, these attacks can be exhausting and start to shake your sanity and the will to report on certain topics.

These factors are worth mentioning because they provide vivid detail about the many personal and institutional challenges faced by Canadian journalists in 2020. Indeed, they tell compelling stories of dedication to truth, transparency and service. audience that cannot be captured in a simple score.

While journalists in Canada certainly don’t face the same existential fears as their counterparts in countries like Russia, Syria or Afghanistan, that doesn’t rule out the need for radical – and transformative – change.

Around the world, May 3 is often circled on the calendars of many journalists, editors and press freedom advocates as World Press Freedom Day. With this year’s theme being “Information as a Public Good,” I hope Canadian journalists will take advantage of this day to undertake two important tasks.

First, take stock of the immense challenges that have been overcome over the past year and acknowledge a job well done. Second, and most importantly, take a moment to re-imagine how in the future we can all better bypass the roadblocks that stand in our way and open a new, more prosperous path.

Things can get better. And they must. The future of the Canadian public’s right to know is at stake.

Brent Jolly is the National President of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

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