MONTREAL — Radio-Canada said Wednesday it will apologize for the repeated on-air use of the N-word but will also appeal a CRTC decision ordering that apology.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission overstepped its authority and made a "serious error" that ignored freedom of the press as guaranteed in the Charter and in the Broadcasting Act, CBC/Radio-Canada said in a statement.
"We simply do not accept the CRTC’s interference in journalism in Canada," the public broadcaster said.
Ricardo Lamour, a social worker and artist in Montreal, filed a complaint with the broadcasting and telecommunications regulator after he was told by Radio-Canada's ombudsman that the on-air use of the word during a radio program in 2020 did not contravene the public broadcaster's journalistic standards and practices. A journalist and a commentator had repeatedly uttered the slur by quoting the title of a book.
The CRTC in late June sided with Lamour, however. While it recognized that the word was not used in a discriminatory manner, the CRTC said the public broadcaster nevertheless violated Canadian broadcasting policy objectives and values, and it ordered Radio-Canada to issue a written apology to the complainant.
In response to the CRTC decision, CBC/Radio-Canada acknowledged Wednesday that "the N-word is a racial slur and it is hurtful, in English and in French. On the rare occasion where it is used by a media organization, it needs to be put in context in an effort to minimize the hurt it may cause."
It said, "words can wound …. That is why we will apologize to the listener who filed a complaint."
But the broadcaster said the regulator went too far. "Its decision … poses a threat because the (CRTC) has attempted to give itself the power to interfere with journalistic independence."
The regulator, it added, "does not have the authority or jurisdiction to make this decision and, in exercising its discretionary powers, it ignored the freedom of the press guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in the Broadcasting Act. That was a serious error."
Some 50 Radio-Canada personalities said in an open letter published July 4 in La Presse that the CRTC decision in Lamour's favour threatened journalistic freedom and independence and "opens the door to the dangers of censorship and self-censorship.''
In an interview earlier this month, Lamour said he filed the complaint after hearing the on-air exchange "without adequate warning and contextual discussion." The backlash against the CRTC ruling, he said, reflected a reaction by people who are resistant to making the necessary changes to better reflect an evolving society.
"We're not seeing some form of introspection here; we're seeing offensive things,'' he said. Instead of fighting, he added, broadcasters should read the reasoning behind the decision and try to do better.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters Wednesday in Kingston, Ont., that there is no simple answer to the debate on journalistic independence, adding that democracies have to defend freedom of expression but also avoid perpetuating historical injustices.
Canada and any other strong democracies, Trudeau said, must stand up for freedom of expression, but "at the same time, there are words that carry deep, deep historical and current weight to them and cause harm."
How we navigate through that, he said, is "the challenge that, quite frankly, there is no simple answer to."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 13, 2022.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press