Press freedoms get ‘freer’

When Canadians hear talk of press freedoms, they generally associate the conversation with the lack of such freedoms in some of the more repressive corners of the globe.
But according to Arnold Amber of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, journalists in this country deal with significant hurdles in the drive to keep the populace informed and advised.
Of course, there is a difference – a rather significant one. Whereas the struggle for press freedoms abroad can be a life and death affair, in Canada it’s more a bureaucratic and legal morass that slows, or prevents, the disclosure of information.
In a wide-ranging conversation with The Publisher, Amber, the CJFE’s president, addressed a number of journalism-related matters – in addition to press freedoms, he also discussed the Canadian media’s role in Afghanistan, the dangers associated with that task, and the perils faced by journalists at work in the more dangerous corners of the world.
Regarding obstacles to information disclosure in this country, Amber struck a note of optimism. “I’m happy to tell you that it is getting freer and freer.”
He says a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision on libel and slander suits changed the nature of how people will be able to bring such actions, bringing the country in line with legislation in other Commonwealth countries, and making it less challenging for journalists to report.
“Before this Supreme Court decision, if you ran a story, and let’s say for the sake of it that it had 67 facts in it, but you got three or four facts wrong, and they may not have been the major issue … you could be sued.
“This new decree, brought down by the Supreme Court, said if you make all reasonable efforts to find out what is happening, and you publish and some of the stuff is wrong, but you’ve done the due diligence, responsible reporting – if you’ve done that, you will not be found liable.
“That has changed the previous, very restrictive rights that journalists had concerning libel, and this is in line with recent legislation in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Great Britain.”
The American system, he says, is different, one in which to be found guilty, “you have to have done it purposely.”
Looming on the horizon is another Supreme Court decision, this one on the ‘right’ of journalists to protect their sources, even in the face or a court order to reveal them.
“When I refuse to disclose my sources, I then get charged with contempt,” says Amber, who adds the underlying issue is the relationship reporters have forged with sources.
“The Supreme Court will now make the decision, but lower courts … have always ruled that the journalist has no more privilege than an ordinary citizen, so therefore there is no court protection.”
Libel and slander chill and protection of sources are two core issues that have, in some way or another, limited free expression in this country, but Amber says the bigger issues are not at the court level. “And some of them are complicated.”
“We do have a system here where public relations and advertising and various things happen in society, where sometimes getting to the heart of it is very difficult.
“For example, if you look at some of the legislation about people filing FOI requests. In some cases it’s not the money to get hold of records, it’s the ability of stalling, so that you never get it until an election has been held, or whatever.
“And you go and you get it, how much of it is blacked out?”
He says the absence of transparency limits the ability of reporters to tell Canadians what their government, which is supposed to be representing them, is up to.
“Some of it is quite outrageous. Those are the kinds of issues that we still face in this country.”
Another hurdle to the free flow of information is being created by the industry itself, he says, with the ongoing cuts to newsrooms. He compared today’s climate to healthier times for the industry, when newsrooms were staffed with reporters charged with covering specific beats.
“So you developed within the newspaper somebody who had expertise watching various parts of society that you should be reporting on, so that people could exercise, with some degree of knowledge, their electoral duties.
“Every paper that I know is continually cutting costs. One less reporter, or one less editor on the desk, doesn’t make a better publication.”
A reporter with more time to spend on a story could, perhaps, come up with a more detailed and relevant article, he offers.
“With the layoffs and the cutbacks, less people are doing more each day. And their ability to do (their jobs) as best they can is gone.”

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