Press Must Remain Proud and Free

Published on
by
The Toronto Star

Press Must Remain Proud and Free

by
Kelly Toughill

Another reason to be smug: Canada is a shining example of press freedom. This country does less to censor the news than all but 17 other nations in the world.

So says Reporters Without Borders, which monitors how the news is strangled and mangled around the globe. In many countries, reporters who cross powerful politicians, business leaders, paramilitary groups or crime syndicates risk being kidnapped, beaten or killed. In others, the censorship is more discreet: laws prohibit full reporting or laws shut down the private press in favour of state-owned media that report only state-sanctioned news.

Eritrea is the worst in the world, according to the annual report released this week. Iceland is the best. Canada is number 18, above the United States (48), France (31) and the United Kingdom (24).

Of course, no international index should be taken too seriously. This one is based on a questionnaire sent to 15 international organizations and more than 100 journalists and press observers. Some will quibble with the questions asked or how they were weighted. Others will question the integrity or knowledge of those who filled out the form.

No doubt many will be offended that the United States, with its celebrated First Amendment, ranked below Nicaragua and Bosnia. (A U.S. blogger was jailed for refusing to turn over photos to police, U.S. courts have ordered several reporters to reveal sources and an Al-Jazeera cameraman is being held at Guantanamo.)

But the trends are clear - and valid. The stable, prosperous countries of northern Europe generally won the highest ratings, and countries at war had the lowest. In Iraq alone, more than 200 reporters and media assistants have been killed since the war began in 2003.

Not quite time to break out the champagne at home, though. The day before the report was released, the Toronto Star revealed that the Prime Minister's Office had plans for a new media centre in Ottawa. At first glance, this appears to be an ego-driven tussle between the Prime Minister and the reporters who cover him.

It is not. The friction between Harper and the parliamentary press gallery is an important issue that goes to the heart of maintaining a free press.

The background: Shortly after he was elected Prime Minister, Stephen Harper tried to change the rules for press conferences at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa, which is controlled by the press gallery. He insisted that his staff be allowed to choose which reporters could ask him questions, instead of the reporters themselves deciding.

It is important to note that this is not a partisan issue. Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin launched the same system outside Ottawa. When he held press conferences with regional reporters while travelling, he insisted his staff call on reporters by name.

The battle over who gets to question the prime minister turned into a feud that created an enduring chill between the Prime Minister's Office and the reporters who regularly cover him.

The Star's Tonda MacCharles reported this week that the Prime Minister's Office asked civil servants to draw up a $2 million plan to renovate a vacant shoe store in downtown Ottawa into a new press conference centre, this one to be controlled by the Prime Minister. The plan has been shelved, at least for now.

This is the system used by the president of the United States - and many other countries. It is a bad one, and here's why.

The real issue is not who gets to ask questions, but what questions get asked.

If Canada adopts the U.S. style, the Prime Minister will be able to call on friendly reporters and avoid reporters who ask difficult, necessary questions.

Most of the world wishes U.S. President George W. Bush had been asked a few more pointed questions before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many wish he could be asked some now.

Questions are not just important, they are fundamental to democracy. Even before writing, publishing or broadcasting, the work of journalists begins with questions. If reporters can't freely question political leaders, press freedom is diminished, and so is democracy.

Canada may be a proud number 18 in the Reporters Without Borders annual index, but it must be vigilant in protecting that freedom.

Kelly Toughill, a former writer and editor, is an assistant professor of journalism at King's College in Halifax.

© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2007

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