The CJFE has released its annual Review of Free Expression in Canada—and once again the grades are disappointing.

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Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) has released its annual Review of Free Expression in Canada. The review includes a report card on free expression issues, and once again the grades are disappointing.

The report card gives the federal government four Fs: for access to information, for muzzling federal scientists, for its Bill C-51 anti-terror legislation and surveillance practices, and the fourth F to the Canada Revenue Agency for audits targeting non-governmental organizations that take positions the government does not like.

“Our right to know has never been more threatened,” reads the introduction to this year’s report card. “Years of government neglect and political interference have left our access to Information system an antiquated, ineffective shell of what it is supposed to be. When combined with our total lack of effective protection for whistleblowers and a pervasive culture of secrecy in Ottawa, we are left with a perfect storm raining on the strength of our democracy.”

Restrictions on federal scientists speaking to the news media and the public continue to be a hot issue. In explaining its F grade the review refers to a 2013 survey in which 90 per cent of federal scientists said they do not feel they are allowed to speak freely about their work. The review suggests the consequent lack of credible sources has contributed to a decline of more than 80 per cent since 2007 in the Canadian media’s coverage of climate-change issues.

Complaints about the federal access to information situation have increased by more than 30 per cent fom 2013 to 2014, the report observes, provoking another F grade. At the same time the office of the federal Information Commissioner, which deals with such complaints, faces budget cuts.

“Instead of a new Utopia, for nine years we have had a very shutdown, closed administration, where secrecy and control are among the core values and the modus operandi,” writes CJFE President Arnold Amber in a separate article in the review.

Digital surveillance and new anti-terror legislation also get a failing grade. “Could a protestor be arrested for peacefully opposing a new pipeline?” the review aks. “Could a journalist be prosecuted for quoting a video from ISIS? These are possibilities under the new legislation.”

The review criticizes the Canada Revenue Agency for a series of audits of charities, including the David Suzuki Foundation, PEN Canada, Environmental Defence and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (since the review went to press, the Sierra Club has been added to that list). The audits “drain resources and can result in the revocation of charitable status,” notes CJFE, “and all seem to target groups advocating for civil liberties or those critical of the government’s environmental and development policies.”

The government is given a D grade on advocacy for Canadians abroad, with particular reference to Mohamed Fahmy, the journalist and Canadian citizen imprisoned in Egypt late in 2013.

Canadian media outlets, meanwhile, get a D+ grade for the paltry protection they provide freelancers—on whom they increasingly rely as full-time staff jobs continue to be cut—against libel lawsuits.

In an article in the review, Tim Alamenciak writes that freelancers, whose pay rates are virtually unchanged since the 1980s, lack the resources to pursue difficult stories, don’t have access to in-house lawyers and may be left on their own if sued. Libel insurance is out of reach for individuals, the article says, but there is one positive development: The Canadian Media Guild is exploring ways of supporting freelancers facing legal and other risks.

On a more positive note, the review gives a B grade for public awareness of free expression issues, noting: “From the robust debate around the Charlie Hebdo shootings to the  growing alarm about the collapse of our  ATI system and the increasing calls to  bring oversight to our spy agencies,  Canadians are waking up. “

That assertion is based on a national poll taken for CJFE by Nanos Research, which asked 1,000 Canadians their views on free expression and access to information issues. Seventy-nine per cent of respondents considered it important to improve government openness and access to information about what government is doing, 16 per cent considered it somewhat important and four per cent called it unimportant or somewhat unimportant.

The response was similar to a question about the importance of federal scientists being allowed to speak publicly about their research: 79 per cent considered it important, 15 per cent somewhat important, five per cent somewhat unimportant and one per cent unimportant.

Forty-nine per cent said they are concerned about lack of government openness about digital surveillance and other monitoring, while 24 per cent were somewhat concerned, 14 per cent somewhat unconcerned, and 12 per cent unconcerned.

Only 42 per cent of survey respondents agree with the suggestion that Canadian media should have reprinted provocative cartoons from Charlie Hebdo in the wake of fatal shootings at the French satirical magazine’s offices. Twenty-two per cent said they would somewhat agree with publication, 14 per cent said they would somewhat disagree, 16 per cent would disagree and seven per cent were unsure.

The margin of error for a random survey of 1,000 Canadians is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Grant Buckler is a retired freelance journalist and a volunteer with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and lives in Kingston, Ont.