Canadian Media Group Not Dealing with Major Free Expression Issues

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), a non-profit organization I worked with for 14 years, is one of dozens of groups from around the world that celebrated the importance of an unencumbered media on World Press Freedom Day May 3.

CJFE has an almost 30 year history of carrying out vital press freedom work throughout the developing world with its own programs and, in particular, through the creation and operation of the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX), a worldwide network of 88 groups. Working with other groups, lives have been saved and entire nations of people have gained the right to express themselves.

The group has just published its most elaborate ever, 46-page Free Expression in Canada Review. The report addresses a number of important issues, such as access to information, digital surveillance, and the failure to protect the country’s whistleblowers. The Review should result in more people becoming involved in CJFE, which is important.

But with this anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, I feel it’s important to explain how CJFE comes up short when addressing the free expression problems we face here in Canada.

It’s not only in developing countries where journalists lack rights. In fact, Canada is facing its greatest public information crisis in many years.

It is true that corporate journalism is adversely affected by the economic downturn and the loss of millions of dollars in advertising revenues to Internet-based companies. But this is not what I’m referring to.

The “mugging” of journalism

The big problem is the “mugging” of a lot of critically important journalism.

I’m talking about how corporate-owned news organizations restrict the freedom of journalists and prevent the public from having access to a wide variety of important news and opinion articles. This lack of balanced information affects everything from people having the information they need to decide how to vote to better understanding how power is exercised in our communities.

The censorship consists of banning some topics and discussions and filtering out stories and ideas that do not fit the current mainstream media agenda. Corporate editors have learned what kinds of stories should be carried. Forced to work in this restrictive atmosphere, many journalists practice self-censorship to protect their jobs.

At just about every major news organization – with the exception of the Toronto Star – independent and left-leaning columnists have been replaced mostly by a horde of ranting right-wing zealots. While there seems to be money for right-wing voices, opportunities dwindle for investigative journalism and digging out all kinds of stories. The lack of corporate support for important journalism was evident at Postmedia when it recently shut its entire parliamentary bureau. Postmedia reporters had been churning out scoops on, among other centres of power, the oil patch.

The bottom line: People in positions of authority and those with lots of power benefit from news management. But folks such as labour leaders, environmental activists, feminists, or spokespeople for poverty organizations are seldom given a chance to be prominent in news coverage.

The greatest manipulators are the giant media corporations Bell/CTV, Shaw/Global, Quebecor/Sun Media, Postmedia, and the Globe and Mail. While the CBC has some excellent current affairs programming, its news departments tend to follow the lead of the safe road set by the privates.

Most serious is the fact that corporate media, heavily reliant on shrinking advertising revenues, have adopted the agenda of big business by taking as a given, rather than healthily debating, its economic ideology. Neo-liberalism, to quote Wikipedia’s definition, is the mindset of those who support “free trade, and open markets, privatization, deregulation, and enhancing the role of the private sector in modern society.” The theory that giving more and more freedom to corporations is the best way to run a country is a radical concept that deserves the most rigorous and skeptical reporting and analysis. Yet in Canada, analysts who dare offer the robust critique that neo-liberalism is destroying the lives of millions of Canadians are consigned to small, independent media.

In addition, corporate media is so enamoured with right-wing governments across the country — notably the Harper administration — that they restrict their news departments from fulfilling its rightful role of more or less playing the role of opposition when covering government activities.

What emerges is an overwhelming mass of right-wing corporate-controlled news and information that supplants independent, liberal and left-wing thinking and expression. Without these stories and opinions being expressed, democracy in Canada is limited.

CJFE should investigate media suppression

Given the seriousness of this problem, media control and manipulation should be CJFE’s number one priority. Yet it’s nowhere on the group’s agenda.

CJFE should conduct a full investigation of the extent of media suppression in Canada. But this is very unlikely to happen because the organization’s direction is pretty much influenced by the same corporations that suppress the news in the country.

The group’s slippery slide into corporate influence began in the 1980s when I worked there. Money was in short supply, so CJFE started holding annual banquets to raise extra cash.

Like so many other would-be progressive organizations that rely heavily on corporate donations, CJFE work in Canada is now limited because of where it gets most of its money. Scotiabank was the key donor at last fall’s fundraising dinner. Other donors included CTV, international financial services company Sun Life Financial, financial risk management firm Aon Hewitt, the billionaire Thomson family’s Globe and Mail, public relations firm Media Profile, National public relations, and OMNI Media, an audio distribution company.

The 14-member Board of Directors that, for whatever reason, does not focus on corporate media control, is made up of eight journalists, while six other people come from the business community. Included are three lawyers who have expertise in various media issues, an executive from a professional search firm, a public relations man from Sun Life, and the part owners of a magazine.

Other countries have greater press freedom

The broader issue beyond the timidity of CJFE is the failure of the Canadian mainstream journalism community to establish an independent voice for itself. Unlike journalists in some European countries, such as Denmark, editors and other media workers here have very little, if any, control over their work.

Perhaps their lack of commitment to journalistic principles can be blamed on their cultural inheritance. After all, most journalists are products of our valueless education system, the pro-business environment we live in, and the consumerism that surrounds us.

Interestingly, Canadian journalists could learn a lot about responsibility and the role of media from journalists in any one of a number of developing countries. While discussing neo-liberalism is a taboo topic in Canadian mainstream media, many Southern journalists insist on the right to debate the controversial economic system. Just two examples: South Africa and the Philippines.

I doubt that many developing country journalists, men and women who put their life on the line too frequently, would stand for the subservient role forced upon mainstream journalists in Canada.

We need a strong voice from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. If members across the country take an interest in the integrity of the organization, they can elect a Board that would oppose a close relationship with corporate Canada. Funding from Big Business could be phased out over a period of time. Much of the revenue could be replaced by employing new, creative fundraising activities.

However it chooses to go about it, CJFE needs to regain its independence so it can speak out on any free expression issue without fear of reprisal.

Nick Fillmore is a Canadian freelance journalist who has won awards for his coverage of environmental issues. Nick worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in several editorial capacities for close to 30 years, and is a founder of the Canadian Association of Journalists. He likes to hear from readers: Read other articles by Nick, or visit Nick's website.