Freedom of the Press in Canada

Robert St. Pierre

February 25th marked a day of action in Canada for press freedom and privacy activists to rally and have their voices heard by government. Chief among the issues brought to the public eye on this day were calls for a law shielding journalists from being spied upon, and a dismantling of the Anti-Terrorism Law, Bill C-51. Furthermore, concerns were raised over the freedom of the press from being associated with law enforcement in light of a recent court order demanding that Vice journalist Ben Makuch hand over all communications with an Islamic State fighter to the RCMP. That decision is now being appealed.

These series of scandals and issues are back-dropped by the most recent Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Index of World Press Freedom, released in April 2016; Canada fell 10 spots in the ranking from 8thto 18th. However, when the index started using scores out of 100 in 2013, where 0 equals perfect press freedom, Canada achieved its highest score yet for 2016 at 15.26. For Canada, this change represents the largest incremental drop in the index since it was developed by RSF in 2002. Should Canadians be concerned by this? To answer this question, we should first take a closer look at how the rankings are formulated.

World Free Press Index

To determine the World Free Press Index rankings, RSF compiles survey responses from journalists in 180 countries, based on the same 87 questions. These responses are combined with  quantitative data on abuses and acts of violence against journalists. The themes in the questionnaire surround pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information. Each country’s final score is calculated by compiling the responses in each of these categories, including the quantitative statistics on acts of violence (for a detailed explanation of this calculation, see here.) A lower score is preferable for those who favour freedom of the press.

Finally, RSF compiles the scores into a Press Freedom Map, which classifies countries in the following manner:

From 0 to 15 points: Good (white)

From 15.01 to 25 points: Fairly good (yellow)

From 25.01 to 35 points: Problematic (orange)

From 35.01 to 55 points: Bad (red)

From 55.01 to 100 points: Very bad (black)

What might the changed rankings indicate in Canada?

Since the index is informed by the survey responses of lawyers, journalists, sociologists, and other media experts, the change in Canada’s ranking likely reflects the distaste that such professionals have for the “ugly parts” of Bill C-51. Of course, while the Liberal party campaigned on reviewing the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act, they have yet to take any concrete action on that file.

As mentioned above, the index also includes quantitative measures of abuses and acts of violence against journalists. While this doesn’t appear to be a problem in Canada, hence Canada still being classified as “fairly good” by the Index, there does appear to be a growing concern that Canadian journalists are slowly losing their ability to do their jobs independently. A Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CFJE) poll in January reported that three-quarters of the 2,316 Canadians surveyed wanted a national inquiry into police surveillance of journalists. In the same poll, 70 per cent said they would support a shield law to protect journalists from search warrants or from being compelled to give up their sources in court.

In addition to the will of the public regarding freedom of the press that the CFJE poll suggests, there is no doubt that governments face a difficult balancing act in an era of growing public concern about state security. However, the ability of law enforcement to properly maintain security prior to Bill C-51 was by no means limited – as this piece points out, it is possible to prosecute individuals for terrorist propaganda without the extended scope offered by C-51.

Regarding the protection of journalists and other private Canadian actors, Bill C-51 appears to go a step too far in justifying government access to data and information by referencing a broad category of “activities that undermine the security of Canada”.  This provision raises serious questions about the right to free speech.

Furthermore, as Ben Makuch points out, journalistic independence ultimately serves the Canadian public, which is not an endeavour that ought to be counterproductive to the goals of law enforcement. By compromising that independence, as was the case when Quebec police monitored the phone of La Presse reporter Patrick Lagacé in 2016, informants are far less likely to come forth with critical information based on the belief that they are essentially speaking to an arm of law enforcement.

Should governments care about the rankings?

The government faces a tricky task in balancing security and the freedom of the press, but it has committed to revising Bill C-51, and may want to consider additional privacy protections for journalists. If the aforementioned CFJE poll on journalistic independence and protections is to be believed, then this is something that the majority of Canadians care about.

Placing 18th is not a terrible score on the Press Freedom Index. But a country like Canada should strive to be in the top ten each year. Being ranked in the top tier of countries for freedom of press would be a solid step in the direction of emulating OECD peers like Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand, and the Netherlands, all of whom constantly rank within the top. A divergence of trends seems to be emerging between Canada and this group of countries as well, at least with regards to the protection of journalists’ sources. The Supreme Court in Norway, for instance, ruled in 2015 that the police could not seize information collected by a documentary filmmaker regarding a terrorism case, instead citing the importance of protecting the journalists’ sources.  This ruling runs contrary to the Ontario Court’s ruling on Vice Reporter Ben Makuch’s sources.

Canada should be wary of having fallen out of this group; a 2001 World Bank paper found that an increase in the free press is associated with an increase in the rule of law, and an improved international economic risk rating.

Maintaining freedom of the press improves public trust in government, a relationship policy-makers must always consider. Caring about the rankings has the potential to improve policy efficacy in the long-term and serve public interest in the short-term as well.

Rob St. Pierre is originally from Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, where he completed his undergraduate degree at Wilfrid Laurier University.  His writing interests include social policy, indigenous issues, and political ecology. In his spare time, he is passionate about music, gardening, and documentary films.