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RM Issue #040507

Press freedom: our issue, too
By ANNE KOTHAWALA
Monday, May 3, 2004 - Page A17

Around the world, freedom of the press, a cornerstone of democracy, is under assault. Even in Canada, there is cause for concern. Last year, 53 journalists were killed for pursuing the truth, according to the World Association of Newspapers' annual press freedom survey. One of them was Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian photojournalist beaten to death while in custody in Iran.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, another watchdog group, tells us 136 journalists are rotting in jail -- close to half of them in China and Cuba. Reporters Without Borders, another group that monitors press freedom, tracked 766 others who were arrested, 1,460 who were physically attacked or threatened, and 501 more whose stories were censored by authorities.

World Press Freedom Day is a sombre occasion, reserved for paying tribute to those who sacrifice their freedom, and sometimes their lives, for ours. Today, we honour journalists who, out of altruistic passion or sheer obstinacy, give their voices so that others might speak. As Indian Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen put it, journalists provide "a voice to the neglected and disadvantaged, while simultaneously preventing governments from insulating themselves from public criticism."

Rubbing against those who have power gets journalists rubbed out. But freer societies generally accept that public criticism and accountability are part of the game; that a free press is indispensable to keeping power honest, and ultimately, that a free press is a precondition to the prosperity and peace to which people everywhere aspire.

Prof. Sen, who won the Nobel economics prize for analyzing how famines occur, observes that no country with freedom of the press has suffered famine. And studies by the World Bank show that the higher the level of press freedom in countries, the greater the control over corruption, and thus the greater the focus of resources on development issues. Free society, freedom of the press, and quality of life are intimately intertwined.

So it is in Canada, consistently rated one of the world's most desirable countries. Yet even here, a journalist -- Tara Singh Hayer, founder of the Indo-Canadian Times -- was murdered in 1998 for his coverage of controversies in the Canadian Sikh community, a mission he persevered in despite an earlier assassination attempt that left him partially paralyzed. And in 2000, Michel Auger, crime reporter for Le Journal de Montr?al, was shot five times in broad daylight after his newspaper published an expos? on biker gangs.

These incidents are all the more worrisome, therefore, when Canadian authorities make us question their commitment to a free press in a free society.

The heart of Canada's sponsorship tangle is not just missing money, it's the missing paper trail that would permit the public to understand government decisions. The mere fact that government officials set out to deliberately frustrate Canada's access to information laws and evade scrutiny should, in and of itself, be deserving of stiff punishment. It's not.

Alarm bells went off in January of this year, when RCMP raided the home of Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O'Neill, searching for the source of leaked information on Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen deported to Syria and tortured. As they read newspaper accounts of Mounties rifling through the Ottawa journalist's underwear drawer, some Canadians may have choked on their morning cereal.

The RCMP had invoked the Security of Information Act, a draconian law spawned after 9/11. Now journalists, already constrained by our antiquated freedom of information laws, must contend with the threat of jail should someone pass them information the government decides is too embarrassing.

The Paul Martin government has pledged to review the Security of Information Act. Repealing it would be a good start. But such pledges will mean little unless Parliament also overhauls the Access to Information Act, cynically undermined by a culture of secrecy.

As Canadians prepare to exercise our most fundamental right, the right to choose our government, we should encourage political leaders to state their positions on improving access to information and press freedom. We need to vigorously defend the media's ability to hold governments accountable.

Anne Kothawala is president and CEO of the Canadian Newspaper Association.



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