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Press Freedom Is Slipping Away In Canada

Above Photo: Himanshu Pandey/Unsplash.

Our right to free expression is under assault from all sides.

Government, corporations and even academics.

Press freedom is increasingly under assault worldwide by governments that are finding the Internet much easier to control than the press ever was. While dictators everywhere suppress dissent by throttling the chokepoint of Internet access, Canada unfortunately leads the so-called “free” world in regulating online communication. First it was the Online Streaming Act, which was passed in April and expands the Broadcasting Act to cover not just online video but now also podcasts and even (shudder) online porn. It got back into the news recently with a requirement issued by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) that podcasters, adult websites and even social media services that earn $10 million or more in annual revenues must register with it by November 28.

That prompted opprobrium from the highest reaches of the Twitterati. First renowned American investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted that Canada now has “one of the world’s most repressive online censorship schemes.” That quickly brought agreement from none other than Head Twit Elon Musk. “Trudeau is trying to crush free speech in Canada,” he added. “Shameful.”

Some of our mainstream journalists and communication scholars, who have both largely supported the push to regulate digital platforms, pooh-poohed the idea that podcast registration is any threat to freedom of expression. One Carleton professor even told the Toronto Star that “Canada has long and consistently held a very high position in all free press, free speech and state of democracy rankings that I am aware of.” Dwayne Winseck added that Ottawa is merely applying to online media the “regulatory instruments” that have been in place for decades in broadcasting. “These things are not at odds with democracy or free press,” he said. “In fact, what we know is that a properly regulated media environment is actually correlated strongly with strong democracy.”

Who’s right, and is there any need to worry? Unfortunately, Canada’s standing in the annual press freedom rankings produced by Reporters Without Borders has plummeted since the Liberal Party of Justin Trudeau took power in 2015, dropping from eighth in the world, which was well into the “good” category, to fifteenth this year, which is well into the merely “satisfactory.” This year’s ranking was based on input (including mine) submitted by January, which was before Ottawa passed not one but two bills that potentially impinge on press freedom. Next year’s ranking could thus look a lot different. Not only has Canada been falling in the rankings, but press freedom around the world has been plummeting with increased government control over the Internet. Only eight countries ranked in the “good” category this year, compared to 21 in 2015. Canada is thus among the fallen.

Following hard on the heels of the Online Streaming Act in April came the Online News Act in June. It requires digital giants Google and Meta to pay Canadian media millions if they carry links to news content, which prompted Meta to start blocking news on its Facebook and Instagram social networks in August. Google confirmed this week that it will do the same before year’s end. A just-ended CRTC consultation on its proposed Online News Act regulations brought a tongue-lashing from the Computer & Communications Industry Association. “The core of the internet is the free flow of information which is inextricably connected to the right to link and quote,” protested its Vice President Jonathan McHale. “Upending this ecosystem to benefit large media conglomerates would not promote sustainable journalism and would likely disproportionately harm the smallest outlets in Canada.”

The mentioned conglomerates could more accurately be described as the hedge funds and private equity firms which now own almost all of our largest newspapers. They have been behind not one but two self-serving lobbying campaigns, first for a $595 million federal bailout announced in 2018, and more recently for the Online News Act. To get their hands on the loot, however, newspaper owners surrendered a large slice of their once-prized independence from government by agreeing to register with the Canada Revenue Agency, which decides who is eligible for aid based on advice from a panel of academic experts. Any payments publishers might receive from Google and Meta would be overseen by the CRTC, which has brought sober second thought from at least the Globe and Mail, whose then-publisher protested last year that such oversight “could allow the newspaper industry to be subject to arbitrary regulation by a quasi-government body.”

Communication scholars and even most journalists, however, seem to have no problem with our news media climbing into bed with the federal government. For the dwindling few employed by our mainstream media, it is likely just a pragmatic means to the end of keeping the presses rolling. For most communication scholars, it seems to be more about bringing to heel the digital giants they seem to loathe for innovating so successfully.

Fortunately, less credulous commentators quickly tore the federal pretext to shreds, as while outright censorship is unlikely, no one can deny that registration at least makes it possible. Law professor Michael Geist noted that the requirement is likely just the first step in enforcing future government objectives. “The CRTC repeatedly signals that registration is in fact the entry point to more regulation.” This could include the expected Online Harms Act, which would also regulate written content and could prohibit otherwise lawful speech. Peter Menzies of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a former CRTC vice-chair, pointed out the regulator’s mendacity in insisting that concerns it would regulate podcasts are a “myth.” The CRTC, he added, “has kicked open the door to the regulation of online content, if not directly then by proxy through the platforms that deliver the work of podcasters to their audiences. It is a bureaucratic master stroke.”

Jen Gerson of The Line correctly pointed out that the most insidious effect registration would likely have on free speech is not censorship but self-censorship. “No one will risk offending Canadian sensibilities if it means the risk of losing access to Spotify et al.” Worse, the largely American podcast distributors “may simply opt out of all Canadian content rather than fall under the aegis of the Broadcasting Act. This is the choice Meta made.” Gerson quipped that the CRTC “has already demonstrated that it is foaming at the mouth to play censor” and that “the technocrats in government, and the politicians who empower them, are desperate to bring a wild informational landscape to heel. This isn’t going to end well. Again.” She urged defiance to the point of civil disobedience. “The gross absurdity of this country’s political theatre offers only one recourse: resist. Don’t comply.”

A more Canadian solution may soon present itself, as the federal Liberals seem intent on committing political suicide with their insistence on regulating the Internet and thus endangering not only our hard-won press freedom, but freedom of expression itself.

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