It’s been 30 years since Section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms made a free press the law of the land. But, on the eve of a national conference to take stock of the state of press freedom in Canada, Ivor Shapiro sees more apathy than passion around the issue.

It’s been 30 years since Section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms made a free press the law of the land. But, on the eve of a national conference to take stock of the state of press freedom in Canada, Ivor Shapiro sees more apathy than passion around the issue.

 

Three journalists were killed in Syria last week: capital punishment for the crime of witnessing and describing current events. How sad for the benighted third world, and how lucky for sunlit us, that no one ever stops a Canadian reporter from doing her job. Lucky us that here, information of public importance can be pursued without unreasonable impediment. Here, stories are vigorously told without fear or favour, and while politicians, police and bureaucrats may not like those stories, they dare not be seen as standing in the way of truthful reporting. After all, this country’s citizenry, and their courts, guard no right more jealously than the right to express even the most obnoxious views.

(Sound effects: screechy rewind; music stops, followed by moment of reproachful silence.)

Okay. So at least we don’t kill our reporters here.

As for the freedom-of-expression landscape at large, consider this: a letter to the editor in the National Post, October 27th, 2011, about the efforts to remove Occupy Bay Street, reads, in full:

“The bottom line is that no 'collective' right can violate basic decency and respect for the freedom of others. You are free to 'assemble peacefully' on your own property, but you cannot block public places, roads or sidewalks. The state has a right to ensure that everyone can use public places and roads. Either we live in a civilized society or we live in a state of anarchy where the law and the authority of the state is ignored or irrelevant."

Well, thank you, Iain G. Foulds, of Spruce Grove, Alta., for conceding my right to assemble peacefully on my own private property.   

Or this: security guards employed by the City of Toronto regularly (and, thankfully, erroneously) tell Ryerson journalism students that they are not allowed to interview people in public squares and on other City property without a permit or accreditation. Meanwhile, the mayor of the same city deems it acceptable to shut the city's and country's largest newspaper out of access to his office. And no public outcry ensues.

Or this: an annual FOI audit by Newspapers Canada predictably concludes that while access to government data is an essential right, “how meaningful that right is varies depending on where you live in Canada.”

Or, of course, this: a federal political party screens citizens' Facebook profiles in order to control admission to campaign rallies. That same party, as a minority government, shouts down pretty much all discretionary access to government by the media. The result: that party is reelected, rewarded with majority government, and proceeds to further shut down the walls on civil servants’ freedom to voice their views publicly. 

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So the question must be asked: What would it take to get Canadians to give a damn about free expression?

Everyone I know unambiguously supports press freedom and agrees that it is a pillar of democracy. Almost no one I know does so with any evident passion. My friends’ passions lie with other pillars, other freedoms. 

Zeal for free expression seems to be reserved for people whose chief objection is to human rights commissions and restrictions on hate speech, rather than something defended with along with equity and compassion. The URL canadianfreespeech.com is owned by an organization that has issued 10 press releases since 1999, of which one protests customs censorship of Little Sisters bookstore, one protests a cancellation by Chapters of a book signing by new-age conspiracy theorist David Icke, and the other eight protest restrictions on holocaust denial and other hate speech or efforts by anti-racist or anti-homophobic initiatives.

Try Googling "free speech Canada" and "free expression Canada" and what you’ll find mostly is voices raised against gay rights rather than homophobia, against anti-racist activity rather than racism, against Islam, against feminism, against a perceived leftist bias in university curricula. How did title to freedom of expression get bought by the right? When did the left and the moderate middle cede that cause? I don’t know, but over the past few months, as plans came together for a national conference on press freedom, I’ve been reminded of the divide.

The conference, called "Press Freedom in Canada: A status report on the 30th Anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," will be held next week (March 8-9, 2012) in Toronto, convened jointly by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre and the Ryerson Law Research Centre. In the early planning stage, one valued colleague – a journalist, heart, soul and scratch-for- the-truth fingernails – confessed she was finding it tough to get excited about the project.  “Frankly,” she said, “press freedom is just not one of the things I feel deeply about." She wasn’t alone.

Yet, it wasn’t at all hard to pull together a lineup of leading thinkers to explore issues around the past three decades of constitutionally protected freedom of expression and of the media.  They include:

  • Top-rank journalists such as Toronto Star editor Michael Cooke, Globe and Mail and Ottawa Citizen columnists Margaret Wente and Susan Riley, Huffington Post Canada’s Kenny Yum, NOW Magazine CEO and editor Alice Klein, the CBC fifth estate’s Linden McIntyre, and Emmy-award winning reporter Peter Klein, formerly of CBS News and now at UBC;
  • Leading lawyers including Quebec Press Council president John Gomery, CBC chief counsel Danny Henry, and human rights advocate Marlys Ewardh as well as top media litigators Brian Macleod Rogers and Christian Leblanc, among several others;
  • Suzanne Craig, integrity commissioner for the City of Vaughan, who will provide an insider’s insight on access to information;
  • Keynote speaker Tony Burman, former head of CBC News and Al Jazeera English and now a research chair at Ryerson;
  • Privacy advocate Jonathan Richardson, who will debate the Star’s legendary newsroom counsel, Bert Bruser; and
  • Legal and media scholars from 12 universities across Canada and abroad, exploring the practical difference made to press freedom made by the Charter, by the certification debate in Quebec, by the “guerilla lawyering” done by small-town court reporters, by SLAPP suits and open-source reporting and sexual-assault coverage and more.

Maybe thinking about freedom of the press from diverse perspectives will help to reorient the discourse from what is currently a marginal concern to something that is nuanced and vital – a foundation and shield for other fundamental liberties. Maybe we can discover ways in which litigators, researchers, teachers and news people with diverse views can find both common ground and cause for reasoned and passionate debate.

Maybe the event’s twitter feed (#pressfreedom) will wake millions of Canadians from sleep and they’ll start caring about press freedom, overnight.

(Scratchy rewind sound repeated.)

Okay, but it’s a start. And it’s not too late to register, so please, do join us.

Ivor Shapiro, the ethics editor of J-Source, is chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. Portions of this article were first presented to the annual conference of Ad Idem/Canadian Media Lawyers Association in Montreal, November 2011.