A 'crackdown' on journalism is dangerous to democracy: PM on global media freedom

·4 min read

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau highlighted the work of journalists working under pressure in Hong Kong and Belarus at Monday's international conference on media freedom.

Canada has been vocal in condemning the clampdowns on democracy and free expression by the Chinese government in the former British colony of Hong Kong and the fraudulent presidential election in Belarus that has given rise to pro-democracy protests.

"Today, we see citizens calling for change, from Hong Kong to Belarus, only to have the authorities attack the freedom of the press," Trudeau told the conference co-hosted by Canada and Botswana on Monday.

Trudeau denounced the imprisonment of Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone for reporting on military atrocities committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar, and of Philippine journalist Maria Ressa.

The Reuters journalists have since gained freedom and have been awarded a Pulitzer Prize. In June, Ressa was convicted of "cyber libel" and sentenced to six years behind bars after complaints from her country's strongman president, Rodrigo Duterte, and other officials from his government.

"It is never acceptable for a journalist to be attacked for doing their job," said Trudeau.

"A crackdown on the media puts democracy in danger. It puts lives in danger."

At the same event, a coalition of international lawyers, led by a former Canadian attorney general, called for a new global charter to protect the rights of imprisoned journalists in an increasingly hostile world.

Irwin Cotler, the former Liberal justice minister and international human rights lawyer, made the recommendation in a report he authored for a coalition of independent international legal experts.

The new charter would upgrade legal obligations on a country that arbitrarily imprisons a journalist and impose new legal duties on the home country of a journalist who has been rounded up.

Cotler says the new measures are needed because the current international laws designed to protect diplomatic access to people imprisoned in foreign countries are not adequate.

"We meet today on the occasion not only of a global COVID pandemic, but a global political pandemic, characterized by a resurgent global authoritarianism, the backsliding of democracies and global assaults on media freedom, where journalists are increasingly under threat and under assault," Cotler told the video conference.

"Although some states already do this to some extent, the system is haphazard and weak," said Amal Clooney, an international human rights lawyer who has represented imprisoned journalists

Cotler and Clooney say the COVID-19 pandemic has emboldened authoritarian governments and created new risks to journalists working internationally.

"So the report proposes a new charter of rights for detained journalists and a new code of conduct for governments to be overseen by a newly appointed international commissioner who would be tasked with monitoring states compliance," said Clooney.

Clooney and Cotler are the leading figures on a panel created last year by the Canadian and British governments to find ways to increase protection to journalists and prevent abuses of media freedom.

Trudeau called the work of their committee "a great example of the power of working together — as civil society, government, and global organizations — to stand up for the kind of future we all want to build."

Neither Trudeau nor Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, who chaired the day-long meeting, veered close to addressing the abuse that American journalists have had to endure during the presidency of Donald Trump, who has called journalists the "enemy of the people."

An American journalist who questioned Champagne during the event's closing teleconference asked the minister if he had any advice for her colleagues who recently covered large events with people "not doing the COVID-19 thing with their mask" while being harassed and called fake news and that also included "instances of journalists just being beaten up on the street."

Champagne replied that "we probably need to change the narrative when it comes to journalism and journalists."

Champagne was also asked to address the periodic media freedom issues that arise in Canada, including a September incident that saw the Ontario Provincial Police contact an Indigenous journalist in Caledonia, Ont. to tell him he was facing charges of mischief and disobeying a court order.

Champagne said he wasn't aware of the specifics of the Caledonia incident.

“What I would say is that what we said around the world, we should also reflect in Canada what we can do better," the minister replied. 

"The protection of journalists, the independence of the media across Canada is certainly top of mind." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2020.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press