At a conference discussing the state of press freedom in Canada last month, Bruce Gillespie, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford and a panelist, said that journalists need to do a better job of communicating why freedom of the press matters. Here, some have done just that. 

Along with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadians' right to freedom of the press turned 30 years old today.

But as Ivor Shapiro asked in a column here in February: does anyone really care?

One of the things that Bruce Gillespie said at a conference on the state of press freedom in Canada held last month at Ryerson University rang true: Journalists need to do a better job explaining why freedom of the press matters. A general failure to do so has led to the apathy Shapiro speaks of. At large, the public doesn't understand the processes that journalists go through in order to obtain information from official sources, and the "us vs. them" tone of articles that gripe about being unable to get information does not help battle this apathy.

David Swick, a journalism professor at the University of King’s College took up the task in a Chronicle Herald editorial this week:

So journalists need to artic­ulate why press freedom is im­portant? OK, it’s worth a shot.

You care about press freedom because you care about many things. Food, animals, education, crime, the Internet, water, war: Important decisions on all of these are being made by a gov­ernment (or corporation, or NGO) near you. If that govern­ment can keep you in the dark, and do whatever it likes, it might.

Solid information allows you to keep an eye on the powers­ that-be. If you are armed with information, the powerful are much more likely to consider your wishes.

(If this is stating the obvious, consider that the obvious is often easy to ignore.) What you need is quality in­formation — including context — from people who know how to get it. What you need is journal­ists.

And press freedom allows all of us to hold the powerful ac­countable.

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As for an example of an organization taking the time to explain things, just yesterday The Ottawa Citizen broke down the frustrating process that journalists go through to obtain even the simplest of information from government agencies and departments.

The Citizen was curious about a joint study that the National Research Council and Environment Canada were doing with NASA about falling snow. So, they asked each of the groups about it.

NASA gave a response in one phone call and 15 minutes. On the other hand, Environment Canada “wouldn’t talk because their expert was out of the office.” So, The Citizen called the National Research Council, which did not agree to an interview. Instead, according to documents The Citizen obtained (only somewhat ironically) through Access to Information, the department used at least 11 staffers to determine the newspaper’s motivation, formulate a response and “massage” its text.

The Citizen describes the final article that they published:

The finished article mentions NRC’s involvement as a courtesy, but can say little beyond that. NASA has talked with enthusiasm about the joy of studying snow and its mysteries. NRC has sent an email describing the number of pieces of equipment on an airplane.

In 1985 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that section 2(b) and freedom of expression is of “fundamental importance to a democratic society.” But a free press needs information, and that includes information from government sources.

The 2011 Newspapers Canada Audit of Freedom of Information in Canada reported that “while access is an important democratic right in Canada, how meaningful that right is varies depending on where you live in Canada.  From a total refusal to release contracts in Winnipeg to Quebec’s denial of basic accountability information about top officials’ spending, to the federal government’s stubborn refusal to release data in a useful form, there is still a lot to be done to make Canada’s access statutes work as citizens have a right to expect.”

For more on press freedom on the anniversary of the Charter, check out Shapiro’s column as well as Swick’s Herald editorial