The fight for free speech

The Economist has published an outstanding feature article on the attacks on free speech by autocrats, but also by governments, like India’s, that are still considered democratic.

The writer has the intellectual sophistication to understand that free speech is undermined in three ways, which I explained in my book Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know. The first is by shutting down or physically censoring a media outlet (or journalist). It’s rare in Canada, but it happens — even more than in the U.S. The federal government used to go after journalists like Peter Worthington, Bob Macdonald and Doug Small with the Official Secrets Act. And Pierre Trudeau had no problem at all jailing Quebec journalists under the War Measures Act. In fact, far, far more were locked up during the 1970 October Crisis than in both wars put together. While governments sometimes go after reporters like Ben Makuch to make them turn over notes (or raw footage), the Charter makes it pretty difficult to jail a reporter for, say, publishing a leaked police report.

Rarely. as in the case of Toronto news sheet Your Ward News, people holding themselves out as opinionists claim their writings are protected political speech. The people who run Your Ward News can’t be considered journalists. It is a pornographic, racist tract and web page that sets out to shock and to incite violence for which the publisher and editor have, rightly, I believe, been convicted of spreading hate speech. This is a rare charge in Canada, which can only be laid by a provincial attorney general. And whatever a person might think of Lisa and Warren Kinsella, the charges likely would not have been laid without their dogged determination to stop the flow of toxic, socially corrosive hatred spread by that publication.

The second way is by choking off the news by clamping down on the flow of information from governments. As the Economist points out, the Indian and Ethiopian governments (and others) have taken this to its logical conclusion: pulling the plug on the Internet itself. Other regimes, like Turkey, have shut down social media sites, while China has simply banned almost all of them.

No Canadian government would go that far, but many have effectively imposed news blackouts on important government information. Bureaucrats who, a generation ago, would have been available for media interviews are now kept in check by an army of government communications staffers who parse out the political ramifications of every interaction between the public sector and the media. Reporters can try to file Access to Information requests, but the system is so backlogged that the information will likely be old and worthless by the time it’s released. Not that there’s much chance the government will be embarrassed by ATIP-generated stories. Bureaucrats now know better than to put incriminating information into computer files or onto paper. Few reporters understand the deeper workings of ATIP. And a tiny, tiny minority of these would ever go to court to get the information they want.

These are the obvious ways news is suppressed. But go back into the Economist piece (and my 2015 book), and you’ll find a third, and very insidious way. It’s one that few people in the media will talk about, because it often, at first blush, benefits them. This is the provision of free “news”, whether it’s the TV footage Mike Harris’s Ontario government used to give to small-town news outlets to free access to the Hungarian government press service run by the right-wing regime of  Viktor Orban. This kind of propaganda services poses as closely as possible to real journalism. Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Ontario News Now is Internet-based and there’s no TV station in Ontario that seems willing to run it, but Ford is doing what Orban is doing: trying to replace the old media, and the stories that the real media can no longer get, with stuff that looks like news.

This is exactly what propagandists on all sides did in World War II.

The goal of all these propagandists and news suppressors is to take as much control of the media as they can get. And if that’s not enough, they’ll just shut it down.