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Liberals' convention pitch to fight online disinformation denounced as assault on free press

Liberal Party members from across Canada passed a non-binding policy resolution on Saturday that critics claim could stifle freedom of the press if it's ever adopted.  (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Liberal Party members from across Canada passed a non-binding policy resolution on Saturday that critics claim could stifle freedom of the press if it's ever adopted. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Without debate, Liberal Party members passed a policy resolution to combat online disinformation this weekend that critics warn could give the government control over Canadian media outlets.

The resolution calls for the Liberals to "explore options to hold online information services accountable for the veracity of material published on their platforms, and to limit publication only to material whose sources can be traced."

"It's deeply troubling this was sort of waved through at the Liberal convention," said University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist.

"It's a dangerous proposal," said Geist, the Canada research chair in Internet and e-commerce law. "It's one that we would see, I think, in far more repressive regimes. It isn't appropriate in a country like Canada that has a commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and a robust democracy."

The resolution passed at the convention on Saturday morning, when there were only about two dozen people in the room. The policy resolution is among two dozen passed by grassroots party members.

Registered Liberals ranked it tenth out of 24 in order of priority.

The resolution is non-binding, which means the party can ignore it altogether.

CBC News asked the office of Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez what it would do. The party released a statement at 1 p.m. on Monday saying it "has and always will respect the independence of the press." The office said an independent press "is fundamental to our democracy" and called it "the best defence against disinformation."

Just before 5 p.m., Rodriguez's office sent a response that put more distance between the government and the controversial resolution.

"A Liberal government would never implement a policy that would limit freedom of the press or dictate how journalists would do their work," said Rodriguez's press secretary Laura Scaffidi in an email.

The Canadian Press
The Canadian Press

The office would not say whether that means the government will commit to never implementing the resolution.

Responding to criticism Monday, the author of the resolution, B.C. Liberal Catherine Evans, said the policy was never intended to "target reputable Canadian journalists" but rather to combat disinformation people post anonymously online.

"This is so ironic to have misunderstanding about a resolution that is trying to combat misinformation," Evans told CBC News.

Evans said the resolution is meant to target platforms like Twitter and Facebook and other websites that post misinformation. She also said some Canadian journalists "post information they have not verified."

It was "probably a mistake", Evans said, to use the technical term "sources" in the resolution rather than making it clear she was trying to target "anonymous postings."

"No one is trying to ask journalists to reveal sources," said Evans. "If there are bylines on it, they're responsible for their sources. The journalist is then the source. If they're talking to non-credible sources, that's their problem."

Guillaume Lafrenière/CBC
Guillaume Lafrenière/CBC

Geist said it shouldn't be up to the federal government to decide "who is a good journalist and who is a bad journalist" and come up with new regulations for those seen as "not good."

He said reputable journalists in Canada who use unnamed sources to break stories that make the government uncomfortable could "land in the bucket of bad journalists" because they didn't identify sources and are "therefore subject to the regulation."

Geist is calling on the Liberal government to distance itself from the proposal.

MP Rachael Thomas, the Conservatives' critic for Canadian heritage, pointed to stories that relied on journalists speaking to sources confidentially. She cited stories about the SNC-Lavalin affair and the ongoing controversy about the Liberal government's handling of foreign interference attempts.

Recent reporting by the Globe and Mail and Global News on foreign interference relied on confidential sources who risked arrest for violating Canada's official secrets law.

WATCH | Conservative MP Rachael Thomas calls Liberal policy resolution 'disheartening'

"The moment we invite this state to do that, or mandate the state to do that, we now have state-run media, we now have state censorship," Thomas told CBC News.

"This is a very dangerous place to be. That likens us to places like North Korea, China, Iran, Russia. That is not Canada. That is a very, very dangerous direction."

Thomas said her party supports freedom of the press and called the resolution "disheartening." She said that despite the stated intentions of the resolution's author, the "actual written content of the motion" is problematic.

WATCH/ NDP MP Peter Julian criticizes the government for its handling of disinformation 

NDP MP Peter Julian said he couldn't comment specifically on the resolution because "it's vague."

He said the government hasn't done enough to tackle disinformation, citing "a number of NDP private members bills that would force companies" to be more transparent.

"There is growing online harm and disinformation," he told CBC News. "We're seeing the real world impacts of that. But we need a government that is willing to step forward and take action on this, and they have yet to do so."

Liberal MP Greg Fergus said he thinks it's a "great policy to discuss and debate ourselves." 

"I'm comfortable debating it," Fergus said of the resolution.

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said the press plays an "essential role in protecting democracy."

"Do I think we need to pursue people and their ability to actually have faith that what's being reported is information they can rely on? Sure," said Fraser. "But I don't want to be in the business of telling the press what they say about me."