As federal elections will be held in Canada on October 19, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reviews the evolution of freedom of the press and information during Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s tenure. It is not a pretty picture.
Despite the fact that Canada currently remains among the top ranking countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, freedom of the press and access to information have suffered over the past 9 years. Systematic curtailment of photographers’ freedom of movement and limited access to the Prime Minister for interviews or even during press events seem to be the tenets of the Conservatives’ philosophy on the media. Closed-door policy “Since he became Canada’s Prime Minister (PM), in 2006, Stephen Harper has presided over the country with a very clear negative attitude towards freedom of the press and freedom of information. The most obvious example is his administration’s closed-door policy with regard to media requests for interviews,” says Delphine Halgand, US Director of Reporters Without Borders. “Every time you photograph Harper, it feels like you’re the enemy,” says Amber Bracken, photojournalist and president of the News Photographers Association of Canada (NPAC). Amber says Harper “uses security as an excuse to protect his image,” explaining to RSF how the Prime Minister’s security team habitually cordons off photographers into specific areas to take photographs, excluding the possibility of any genuine or unscripted images. The situation is just as frustrating for journalists. Justin Ling of Vice, who has been covering Canadian politics for several years, says: “Media access in Canada has gone from pretty good to awful in the past several years.” According to him, information is now regularly withheld by the Harper’s government. Receiving adequate responses to Harper’s interview questions has become much more difficult. Now Harper answers approximately 5 questions from reporters every 2 to 3 months. Those journalists from national publications who pay to travel with the PM are usually entitled to 4 questions, while one is usually reserved for a journalist from a local publication. Treating reporters as “enemies” doesn’t only manifest itself in Harper’s direct relationship with the media. It’s something his party has also successfully campaigned on. The Conservative Party sends fundraising emails to its donors suggesting the “media elite” is trying to undo everything the conservatives stand for and have already accomplished. National security - another excuse In addition to his closed-door policy, anti-terrorism legislation passed during Harper’s time as PM has triggered significant issues regarding freedom of the press and of expression. Specifically Bill C-51 adopted in June 2015. The law includes prison terms of up to 5 years for “advocating” or “promoting” terrorism in general, including “reckless” statements. It also gives authorities the power to take down online content deemed “terrorist propaganda.” Many authoritarian regimes have adopted anti-terrorist legislation with similar language in order to silence journalists and human rights defenders. And as far as privacy issues are concerned, the law allows various government institutions to share citizens’ personal information with security agencies if it is simply deemed “relevant” to national security. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) filed a complaint in July with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, arguing that Bill C-51 was “adopted in violation of the Constitution.” Opposition parties running against the current majority have promised to either scrap the law or remove the most controversial sections. Arbitrary arrests at the demonstrations against the 2010 G20 summit Furthermore, Canada experienced the largest mass arrest of protesters in its history during the G20 summit - held in Toronto on June 26 and 27, 2010. Reporters covering the event were also arrested. Brett Gundlock, a photographer for the National Post at the time of the protests, was arrested despite having full accreditation and wearing a visible media access badge. “Press and protesters were treated in the same fashion,” says Gundlock, who was punched in the face by an officer after he put his hands up. He was then thrown to the ground. An officer kept his knee on Brett’s back to immobilize him while another officer kicked him. When he was finally taken to a makeshift detention facility, he was charged with unlawful assembly and obstruction of a police officer. After contesting these charges, he had to undergo a very thorough and intrusive strip-search. A full 24 hours elapsed before he was able to speak with a defense lawyer. Luckily, the charges were dropped 2 months later, but his arrest and violation of his civil rights should never have happened in the first place. Brett’s colleague Colin O’Connor (photographer for the National Post), was also arrested, along with freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeld, working for The Guardian. Jesse was also beaten by the police. “As election day draws near, the question that begs asking is: will this trend of restricting access to information and freedom of the press continue with a new government?” says Margaux Ewen, Advocacy and Communications Officer for RSF’s US office. Though many Canadians hope for change in this respect, it’s unclear that it will actually come. Nick Taylor-Vaisey, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) says: “It’s important to emphasize this is not only a Harper problem.” Freedom of the press and access to information have also been attacked by city and provincial governments - conservative and liberal alike. For example, the city of Ottawa’s police service claims it will cost over 6,000 Canadian dollars to produce data on accidents between cyclists and motor vehicles, whereas access to such information should be provided for free to media and citizens. Campaign promises from the New Democratic Party and the Liberal Party include better treatment of the media and policies that favor broader access to information and a reduction in the costs associated with those requests. However, many in the journalistic community are skeptical that even a prime minister coming from a current opposition party will be willing to relinquish the high level of control that Harper has put into place during his years in office.