The Price of Freedom

Government offers $6M to protect journalistic freedom, Supreme Court rules against it

By: Sam Mathers, Editor-in-Chief

Enshrined in the Constitution Act of 1982, freedom of the press is fundamental under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, allowing journalists to question and hold their government accountable. Part of this freedom is the right for journalists to protect their confidential sources. On November 30th, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Vice reporter Ben Makuch, ordering him to hand over records of conversations he had with an alleged ISIS member to police. The ruling comes just over a week after the federal government announced a $595 million package to support news media and protect the free press.  

In October 2017, the Journalistic Source Protection Act became law in Canada, which previously was one of the only industrialized countries without legislation protecting journalists’ confidential sources. Makuch’s conversations with his source date back to 2014, before the law took effect. In a Twitter statement, Makuch said: “I am profoundly disappointed in today’s ruling, not just as an appellant in this case or a reporter, but as a citizen of Canada. It is truly a dark day for press freedom around the globe at a time where journalism is unquestionably under attack everywhere.”

Reporters Without Borders ranks Canada 18th on the 2018 World Press Freedom Index. It cited Makuch’s ongoing case as one of the reasons behind the poor ranking, which is up four points from 2017, but will likely fall back down in light of the ruling. Additionally, Canadian journalists are often faced with publication bans imposed on courtroom proceedings, politicians’ refusal to comment on important issues and bureaucrats blocking access to public information. In 2012, editor of the Toronto Star, Michael Cook, said: “we buy the word ‘confidential’ and we need to replace that word with ‘secret.’”

Announcing the 2018 Fall Economic Statement, Finance Minister Bill Morneau stated that the goal of the package is to “protect the vital role that independent news media play in our democracy and in our communities.” Canada’s news industry has seen difficulty adjusting to modern media consumption, like the accessibility of information on online platforms. In fact, 260 local Canadian news outlets have shut down over the last ten years.

However, federal funding for news organizations is controversial. Members of the Conservative party have called the package dangerous, fearing this will allow the government to hand pick who gets to report the news.

Dr. Toby Rollo, Associate Professor of Political Science at LU spoke to The Argus about this issue, stating: “There does appear to be some direct funding going to small media markets, which is great for those markets. Because these resources are being directed to marginal media markets, the concerns over government interference expressed by Conservative critics appear to be overblown…given the structure of the package as I understand it, the most likely problem will not be interference in media by government but, rather, interference in media by wealthy private contributors.”

Over five years, the package will include a refundable tax credit to support the cost of producing original news content. Additionally, non-profit journalism organizations will be required to create open source content under a creative commons license, allowing local outlets to publish stories in quantities they do not have the capacity to produce on their own. Non-profits will be able to gain charitable status and issue receipts to donors to encourage philanthropy – in fact, donors could deduct around half of their donation from their income taxes. Canadians with online subscriptions to certain media outlets could also receive a 15% tax credit.

An independent panel made up of members from the news and journalism industry will be responsible for the specifics, like defining and promoting core journalism standards and deciding who is eligible to benefit from the package.

Rollo notes his skepticism of the package, saying: “insofar as the package is comprised of tax credits, I worry that this will reinforce rather than address the contemporary neo-liberalization of media revenue that has resulted in constraints on the kind of critical investigative reporting that democratic societies require. I also worry that if media organizations are permitted to position themselves as charitable organizations funded by private donations, this will result in disproportionate private funding to media organizations who are then beholden to moneyed interests. The result will not be critical investigative reporting.”