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On World Press Freedom Day, Canada's Blind Spot

Our Big Media narrowly frames vital issues, muffling democratic debate.

By Nick Fillmore 3 May 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist and a Tyee National columnist. He was one of the founders of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange and the Canadian Association of Journalists. Nick supports media development projects in Caribbean countries by volunteering with the Association of Caribbean Media Workers.

This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders.

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Sensory underload: Canadians are hampered when corporate media filters out stories and points of view that don't fit a pro-business agenda. Photo: Shutterstock.

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), a non-profit organization I worked with for 14 years, is one of dozens of groups from around the world that is celebrating the importance of an unencumbered media on World Press Freedom Day today, May 3.

CJFE has an almost 30-year history of carrying out vital press freedom work throughout the developing world with its own programs, and in particular, through the creation and operation of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a worldwide network of 88 groups. Working with other groups, lives have been saved and entire nations of people have gained the right to express themselves.

The group has just published its most elaborate report ever, the 46-page Free Expression in Canada review. The report addresses a number of important issues, such as access to information, digital surveillance, and the failure to protect the country's whistleblowers. The review should result in more people becoming involved in CJFE, which is important.

But with this anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, I feel it's important to explain how CJFE comes up short when addressing the free expression problems we face here in Canada.

It's not only in developing countries where journalists lack rights. In fact, Canada is facing its greatest public information crisis in years.

It is true that mainstream journalism is adversely affected by the economic downturn and the loss of millions of dollars in advertising revenues to Internet-based companies. But this is not what I'm referring to. There are still the resources to do a better job.

The 'mugging' of journalism

The big problem is the "mugging" of a lot of critically important journalism.

I'm talking about how corporate-owned mainstream news organizations restrict the freedom of journalists and prevent the public from having access to a wide variety of important news and opinion articles. This lack of balanced information affects everything from people having the information they need to decide how to vote, to all of us better understanding how power is exercised in our communities.

The censorship consists of banning some topics and discussions and filtering out stories and ideas that do not fit the current mainstream media agenda. Mainstream editors have learned what kinds of stories should be carried. Forced to work in this restrictive atmosphere, many journalists practice self-censorship to protect their jobs. If you contradict the usually unspoken rules, you don't work.

At just about every major news organization -- with the exception of the Toronto Star -- independent and left-leaning columnists have been replaced mostly by right-wing zealots. While there seems to be expanding money and space for such voices, opportunities dwindle for investigative reporters with an old-fashioned mandate to chase down stories without fear or favour. Postmedia recently shut its entire parliamentary bureau, which had been churning out scoops on, among other centres of power, the oil patch.

The bottom line: people in positions of authority and those with lots of power benefit from news management. But folks such as labour leaders, environmental activists, feminists or spokespeople for poverty organizations are seldom given a chance to be prominent in news coverage.

Money and influence

The narrow frame is set by the giant media corporations Bell/CTV, Shaw/Global, Quebecor/Sun Media, the Globe and Mail and Postmedia. While the CBC has some excellent current affairs programming, its news departments tend to follow the lead of the safe road set by the privates.

Most serious is the fact that corporate media, heavily reliant on shrinking advertising revenues, have adopted the agenda of Big Business by taking as a given, rather than healthily debating, its economic ideology. Neoliberalism, to quote Wikipedia's definition, is the mindset of those who support "free trade and open markets, privatization, deregulation, and enhancing the role of the private sector in modern society." The theory that giving more and more freedom to corporations is the best way to run a country is a radical concept that deserves the most rigourous and skeptical reporting and analysis. Yet in Canada, analysts who dare to note that neoliberalism is destroying the lives of millions of Canadians are consigned to small, independent media.

Without these stories and opinions not only being expressed but made widely and prominently available, democracy is limited in Canada.

Given the seriousness of this problem, media control and manipulation should be CJFE's number one priority. Yet it's nowhere on the group's agenda.

CJFE should conduct a full investigation of the extent of media suppression in Canada. However the organization may be limited by its increasing dependence on financial support from the same media giants and other corporations that would fall into its crosshairs.

This potential conflict arose in the 1980s when I worked there. Money was in short supply, so CJFE started holding annual banquets to raise extra cash.

Scotiabank was the key donor at last fall's fundraising dinner. Other donors included CTV, international financial services company Sun Life Financial, financial risk management firm Aon Hewitt, the billionaire Thomson family's Globe and Mail, public relations firm Media Profile, National public relations, and OMNI Media, an audio distribution company.

Other countries have greater press freedom

The broader issue beyond the timidity of CJFE is the failure of the Canadian mainstream journalism community to establish an independent voice for itself. Unlike journalists in some European countries, such as Denmark, reporters, editors and other media workers here have very little, if any, control over their work.

Perhaps their lack of commitment to journalistic principles can be blamed on their cultural inheritance. After all, most journalists are products of our valueless education system, the pro-business environment we live in, and the consumerism that surrounds us.

Interestingly, Canadian journalists could learn a lot about responsibility and the role of media from journalists in any one of a number of developing countries. While tallying the damage caused by neoliberalism and proposing serious alternatives is a taboo topic in Canadian mainstream media, many journalists in more southernly countries insist on the right to debate the controversial economic system. Just two examples: South Africa and the Philippines.

I doubt that many developing-country journalists, men and women who put their life on the line too frequently, would stand for the subservient role forced upon mainstream journalists in Canada.

We need a stronger voice from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. If fear of losing corporate cash is limiting what the organization can really say, then the true road to freedom is for board members to phase out funding from Big Business.

If they don't, perhaps it's time they were replaced with members who define the problem of freedom of expression more broadly.  [Tyee]

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