/Canadians best served by free and robust press

Canadians best served by free and robust press

So many of things we often taken for granted now appear in the harsh light of the COVID-19 pandemic to be critical to our well-being.

We’ve put some on hold: Sitting at a table over a meal with good friends. Attending a concert where the crowd rises in appreciation of a shared love of the music, or walking with a child whose hand fits in ours.

But some we cling to because we need them to help navigate this crazy new world. We read, listen, and watch our chosen media to tell us about the pandemic’s pathway, our governments’ response to it and the economic and social fallout that is resulting from a once-in-a-century public health crisis.

We will not agree with every headline or columnist’s take, or like every question posed at a televised news conference.

In its sum, however, a free and aggressive media plays a critical role in bringing us information on the impacts of the pandemic on local communities, at the provincial and national level, and across the globe. That includes information and perspectives that those in authority would rather their citizens did not hear.

On May 3, we mark World Press Freedom Day, as proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993. It is a day promoted by UNESCO to assess press freedom around the world, and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives or been imprisoned while pursuing their work.

It has special resonance in this year of the pandemic.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, journalism was already under attack by authoritarian or pseudo-populist governments around the world. The crisis has given them new ammunition to justify their clampdowns, even as the public’s welfare depends more than ever on access to accurate, science-based information.

In Canada, there are those who would restrain the press in the name of public order and social cohesion during the crisis. They bristle when journalists challenge that words and actions of public health authorities and governments that are working to minimize the virus’s impact.

Censorship is not the answer. As UNESCO stated on a previous World Press Freedom Day: “A free press is not a luxury that can wait for better times; rather, it is part of the very process which can bring about better times.”

In the months since the COVID-19 virus erupted in China and then spread across the global, authoritarian governments have used the crisis to further restrict a free press and free expression which are intrinsically linked.

The Chinese government clamped down on doctors in Wuhan who first warned about the severity of what was than an epidemic. Beijing has tightly managed the flow of information in that country, with evidence it misled the world about the extent of the COVID-19 outbreak. That censorship likely contributed to the early spread of the virus across the globe.

Other governments have impose new controls on press freedom in the name of combatting mis-information. Venezuela, Brazil, Hungary, Egypt, Iran and South Africa have all moved to limit the free flow of information in order to present a government-approved picture to their citizens.

In Canada, partisans and media critics have denounced journalists’ questioning of public health officials including the federal chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam. They argue that such aggressive reporting and critical columns undermine public trust. And yet, Canadian compliance with the advice of Dr. Tam and provincial health officials remains high.

Indeed, coverage of the federal and provincial actions has not only kept Canadians informed but prompted government to recalibrate their decisions. The media has shined the spotlight on contentious policies – including the proposal in an early draft bill to give the federal government sweeping power to tax and spending without Parliamentary authorization until December 2021. That plan was quickly scrapped.

Media have brought to light stories about the vulnerability to the COVID-19 virus among the homeless, prison inmates and people living in remote communities – people whose voices are often forgotten.

The Liberal government recently floated the idea of passing legislation that would prohibit the deliberate spreading of misinformation about the pandemic.

Such a response to the pandemic would raise major problems. It could be used to quell legitimate dissent and free expression.

The federal governments must monitor and report on activities of foreign governments and state-sponsored actors who would sow dissension by spreading mis-information. However, social media providers, news organizations and civil society groups should be the ones that lead the effort to battle disinformation and debunk fake news.

Despite the media’s own shortcomings and the risks inherent in an open society, Canadians remain best served by a free and robust press that informs citizens with accurate information and holds to account people in positions of power.

Shawn McCarthy is the president of the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.

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