Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/4/2019 (207 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If you were to hazard a guess as to Canada’s ranking for press freedom, where do you think we would stand globally? In the top five? Top 10?
Surprisingly, Canada barely cracks the top 20 in the global ranking of press freedoms according to Reporters Without Borders, an organization which monitors countries for their stance on freedom of information and their treatment of journalists around the globe. Canada sits at 18 out of 180 countries, maintaining its ranking from last year, which improved from 22 in 2017.
Norway occupies the coveted top spot on the list released mid-April — familiar territory for the Nordic country that has held that ranking since 2016 — for its constitution which favours press freedom and its limited violence against journalists.
One of the red flags for Reporters Without Borders in Canada’s ranking was the arrest of Justin Brake, charged in October 2016 while covering Indigenous protests at the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador. He was cleared of civil contempt charges in March by the Court of Appeal in Newfoundland and Labrador, but still faces criminal charges.
In its decision, the court noted that Brake was covering an Indigenous land protest and concluded that in achieving the goals of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, the media can play a role in understanding Indigenous Peoples’ issues and needs. APTN was one of the interveners in this case.
Judge Derek Green, writing for a three-member appeal court panel, said Brake was simply doing his job and not breaking the law. "The evidence from APTN, which I accept, is that Aboriginal communities have been historically underrepresented in the Canadian media," he wrote. "That makes freedom of the press to cover stories involving Indigenous land issues even more vital."
But Brake’s legal troubles are indicative of other instances of government overreach, particularly toward smaller newspapers or independents. Grant Buckler, who volunteers with the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, wrote a piece recently in the Canadian Journalism Project publication J-Source, pointing out similar cases of arrests of reporters from smaller news organizations and independents covering protests that involve large corporations and Indigenous protesters.
As Buckler writes, "People in power don’t like reporters to go beyond the press releases and official statements. They employ armies of public relations staff to spoon-feed the media with the story they want the public to read or hear. They make it clear to most employees other than those PR people that they are not to talk to reporters.
"They are helped quite a bit in their efforts by the continuing shrinkage of news budgets and staffs, which leave many reporters with little alternative but to rely on the official version of things. But some reporters — notably those who work for a handful of the best media outlets and for small, alternative outlets driven more by idealism (and sometimes ideology) than by profit — still try to get beyond the party line. That bothers some people."
So companies use the power of the courts and police (the state) to control the message. The large media outlets have lawyers to back them up. The smaller outlets? Well, not so much.
We should be worried. Particularly because having fewer media outlets means that public relations staff outnumber journalists.
If you’re wondering how well the United States did in press-freedom rankings, the short answer is: not very well. In fact, for a democratic country that likes to tout its free press, its ranking is dismal.
The U.S. came in 48th, behind Romania, Chile, Botswana, Tonga, Italy and Taiwan. Much of the finger-pointing must go to the presidency of Donald Trump, who just this week celebrated CNN’s low ratings and has regularly looked the other way while journalists were attacked at his rallies, calling them "the enemy of the people."
Media watchers are also concerned about the concentration in the U.S. market and the ownership of television stations by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. News this week is that Sinclair, a massive conservative broadcaster with 193 television outlets in 89 markets across the United States, is now making a move to push for a national news presence. The broadcast group is hiring news anchors to position itself as a national news competitor to Fox News ahead of the 2020 election. Sinclair television stations have been criticized for pushing pro-Trump talking points.
More fake news, more news suppression, less information. Frightening.
Meanwhile, internationally, 29-year-old Irish freelancer Lyra McKee was killed while covering while covering riots in Northern Ireland. A woman in the dissident group the New IRA has been charged. In 2018, 53 journalists were killed just because they were doing their jobs. That’s the ultimate outcome of a failure to protect press freedoms.
Shannon Sampert is the director of the media centre for public policy and knowledge mobilization at the University of Winnipeg.