Canada’s press a little less free
OTTAWA — The news media got a little less free in Canada this year.
So says a watchdog group in its annual ranking of press freedom worldwide.
Canada fell to 19th place this year from 13th last year on Reporters Without Borders’ index of freedom of the press. The analysis includes print, broadcast and online journalism in 175 countries.
But the Paris-based group, also known by its French acronym RSF, did not say why Canada dropped six spots from last year’s ranking.
Chris Waddell, a journalism professor at Carleton University, says he can think of two things that may explain Canada’s drop this year.
The first is the decision of Canada’s top court to take on a press freedom case involving the sponsorship scandal.
The Supreme Court of Canada agreed earlier this year hear the Globe and Mail’s challenge of a gag order that barred it from reporting settlement talks between Ottawa and a Quebec advertising firm.
The top court has already agreed to hear a separate challenge of the Quebec Superior Court’s attempt to force Globe and Mail reporter Daniel Leblanc — who broke many of the scandal’s first stories — to reveal his sources.
Waddell says the second thing that comes to mind is the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which has come under fire recently over a couple of high-profile cases.
One of those cases involved a Mark Steyn book excerpt on the Maclean’s magazine web site. The excerpt was accused of promoting hatred and contempt of Muslims.
That case was tossed out, but led some to demand that the commission be disbanded.
Moreover, many Canadian journalists complain the country’s freedom-of-information legislation lacks teeth.
The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to request files held by the federal government.
The law requires a response within 30 days, though departments can take extensions under certain conditions. But delays of 120 days or longer are common, and even then the government frequently misses its own deadlines.
The Harper government recently nixed recommendations to expand and modernize Canada’s access-to-information and privacy laws.
A House of Commons committee had recommended, among other things, that the information commissioner be given more power to force the government to disclose information in a timely manner.
But Justice Minister Rob Nicholson quietly rejected the proposed reforms as too cumbersome, unnecessary or ill-considered.
Neither a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office nor a spokeswoman for Heritage Minister James Moore, who oversees the CBC, immediately responded to requests for comment on the press freedom rankings.
The top three spots on Reporters Without Borders’ list went to Denmark, Finland and Ireland, while Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan rounded out the bottom three.
The United States rose to No. 20 this year from No. 40 in last year’s ranking, which the group attributes to more relaxed attitudes toward the media under U.S. President Barack Obama.
The group compiles the list based on questionnaires completed by journalists and media experts around the world, as well as data on attacks, arrests, laws and overt or covert censorship.