Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Press freedom ranking falls again

For the third time in the past four years, Freedom House has downgraded Canada’s press freedom ranking in its annual survey of world media. While our press is still firmly ensconced in the “free” category, it dropped one point in the past year to rate an 18 on the Freedom House scale, which considers legal, political, and economic pressures on press freedom. Canada now ranks tied for 25th in the world, behind such countries as Estonia, Monaco, and St. Vincent & The Grenadines. Canada took a two-point tumble a few years ago as a result of CanWest’s intimidation of its own journalists, but had recovered somewhat recently. Here’s the bottom line over the past few years.
2002 16
2003 17
2004 15
2005 17
2006 18
2007 17
2008 18
In dropping Canada by a point in its most recent ranking, Freedom House deemed legal constraints on the press to have increased. Its report noted that cases continue to be brought under a 2004 law forcing reporters to present documents to the police if deemed vital for a criminal case.

In June 2007, Ottawa Citizen reporter Gary Dimmock was ordered to produce his notes regarding allegations of bribery against Mayor Larry O’Brien. The appeal also continued of Ken Peters, a reporter for the Hamilton Spectator who was found in contempt of court in 2006 and fined C$31,600 for refusing to give up a confidential source, though the source later came forward voluntarily.

Freedom House also noted the shroud of secrecy under which Ottawa currently operates due to the perception management policies of the Harper Conservatives. That was nicely illustrated recently with the revelation that government MPs have been issued with wallet-size laminated cards instructing them on what to do if approached for comment by a reporter. According to the Toronto Star, the instructions to MPs include first clamming up, then asking a series of questions before going to the PMO for permission to speak to the journalist. The Freedom House report also notes threats against Canadian journalists made by religious extremists, a nasty example of which was recently revealed by Vancouver Sun reporter Kim Bolan, who has been the subject of death threats over the years from Sikh extremists due to her dogged reporting of factional violence in the Indo-Canadian community.

Despite the increasing vitriol, I was still startled two months ago to find a photo of myself posted on a Facebook page that had been started a few days earlier to attack me. A bullet hole had been photo-shopped onto my forehead, blood dripping from the wound, my left eye sliced open and more blood flowing from my nose and mouth.

RCMP traced he Facebook page to a Calgary man and the offensive image was quickly removed. CBC reporter Terry Milewski has also been subject to death threats and online vilification, noted Bolan in her chilling account of the perils of journalistic persistence. As World Press Freedom Day passes for another year, it’s important to remember that in Canada, despite the intimidation from a small minority – including some owners of the media – many journalists are still willing to hold the public’s right to know above their own personal welfare.

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