Canada Losing Ground

The headline of Reporters Without Borders’ 2007 Press Freedom Index reads:

Eritrea ranked last for first time while G8 members, except Russia, recover lost ground

A G8 member other than Russia also lost ground: Canada. In this year’s survey Canada ranks 18th with a score of 4,88 while in 2006 Canada ranked 16th with a score of 4,50. While it may only be a small dip, it is a slide nonetheless. As Canadian it is embarrassing and I want to highlight three trends that I see:

1) Government Surveillance of Journalists

Last September it was revealed that the names of journalists who had filed Access To Information as well as the content of their requests were being discussed on conference calls and circulated to the Prime Minister’s Office as well the the departments who were the target of the forthcoming article. In this particular case it was a reporter who had asked for information regarding the landing of CIA planes in Canada:

During that call, and minutes of others like it obtained by The Gazette, officials freely discuss media requests for information their departments have received. They also exchange information on who intends to submit a request and who is about receive documents under the access law.

“Noted there will shortly be another Bronskill/CIA Planes article, as new ATIP info is going out from PSEP,” the public safety and emergency preparedness department reported. “The info essentially reiterates that normal procedures were followed and nothing abnormal was discovered.”

2) A “Controlled” Press Centre

Although it was shelved upon becoming public the Prime Minister’s plan to build a new press centre has serious negative consequences for journalism in Canada. Annoyed with the questions asked by journalists the Prime Minister sought to have his staff select which reporters could ask questions but was refused so he resurrected the Liberal’s plan to build a new media centre in which his staff would control who asked questions. The ability to manipulate and control what questions are asked is a serious threat to democracy. As The Star notes: “If reporters can’t freely question political leaders, press freedom is diminished, and so is democracy.”

3) Media Consolidation

AdBusters reports that “just four corporations now control 70 percent of the country’s newspaper circulation” and my hometown, Vancouver, is the worst in the country. In Vancouver one company owns “70 percent of the entire media market and is the only voice of record for the city.”

[CanWest] now owns both of Vancouver’s daily newspapers (the Sun and the tabloid Province), the city’s top-rated television station (GlobalTV), 12 community newspapers, eight analog and digital television stations, and one of two national papers. For good measure, it also owns the only daily in the nearby provincial capital, Victoria’s Times Colonist.

UPDATED: Nov, 10, 2007

4) Non-Compliance with Access to Information requests

What right does the public have to know?
Access to information system too often a barrier to transparency:Newspaper group

The National Freedom of Information Audit conducted by the Canadian Newspaper Association concluded:

Clearly, most Canadian jurisdictions continue to demonstrate confusion, inconsistency and a flawed understanding of the importance of transparency to the democratic system and how access to information rights are a public right that underpins the transparency principle.

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