Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On Press Freedom Day, concerns raised about Harper government 'clampdown'

Gemma Karstens-Smith, For Postmedia News
Published: Wednesday, May 02, 2012

A brightly coloured gang - fists raised in protest - use their smartphones as armour against a row of riot gear-clad police. Hiding behind his shield, one policeman stealthily checks his own device.

No one, it seems, can resist the allure of technology.
But what effect technology is having on free of expression is up for debate, especially on World Press Freedom Day, celebrated annually on May 3.

The image, by Brazilian cartoonist Liz França, is the winner of the 12th annual International Cartoon Competition, held by the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom.

This year's theme, Power to the People: Citizens and Social Media, was a difficult one, said Guy Badeaux, vice-president of the committee.

Still, there were more than 300 submissions from more than 40 countries.

The texting policeman is what made França's stand out.

"This one had the extra element of humour," said Badeaux, who's also a cartoonist with Le Droit. "Very subtle, I must say."

França will be recognized at the committee's annual World Press Freedom Day luncheon in Ottawa on Thursday.

Also receiving a nod will be the Canadian Science Writers Association and the Association des communicateurs scientifique, which are winners of the committee's 14th annual Press Freedom Award for stories that investigated government restrictions on federal scientists that prevent them from talking to media.

"We decided to give them this award to send a message to Harper and the government that we find these policies restrictive to expression, not good for democracy, not good for the taxpayers paying for the science," said Bob Carty, a member of the committee and producer for CBC radio.

"The scientists are a great example of a policy that is dangerous for democracy in Canada."

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression gave the free expression of federal scientists an 'F' on its third-annual Review of Canadian Free Expression report card, which came out on Wednesday, just in time for World Press Freedom Day.

Canada's Access to Information process also received an 'F' for delays, costs and general runaround, said Arnold Amber, president of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

Both the restrictions on federal scientists and archaic Access to Information laws affect accountability and transparency in Canada, Amber said.

"It isn't impeding on the average person's ability to speak, but it's impeding - and stopping - the ability of a citizen of this country to know things that are going on in this country that they have a right to know about."
Free expression is a "linchpin right" that affects social, civil and economic rights, Carty said.

"If you don't have free expression, you can't have freedom of association, it's hard to have the rights to democracy, to vote, because you don't know who you're voting for."

In Canada, freedom of expression is on the decline, said James Baxter, president of the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom.

"When I was a young reporter on (Parliament) Hill, you could actually talk to people who could tell you, on background, what was being discussed, what were the range of options, where were the sticking points on policy," said Baxter, who's also the founding editor and publisher of

"You can't have that conversation anymore. It doesn't exist. And if it does, it's at someone's peril."

There is a "systematic clamping down" on information in Ottawa, Baxter said.

"It's positively Soviet in a lot of ways."

But Baxter does see one possible bright spot in terms of free expression: the Internet.

"The Internet has really changed the world of libel law," he said, noting that the ability to make corrections quickly means it's becoming increasingly difficult to threaten journalists and editors with libel suits.

Amber also said he sees potential for freedom of expression in the digital realm, though he said there are "thorny issues" as well, like privacy and anonymity.

"We're still learning our way through that," Amber said.

The UN General Assembly recognized the importance of free expression in 1993, when it proclaimed May 3 World Press Freedom Day to draw attention to the fact that journalists in some countries face censorship, harassment, detainment or even physical attacks.

In 2011, 103 journalists were killed worldwide; many others were threatened, detained or attacked.

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