Press freedom doesn’t always equal true freedom

29 Apr

FreedomWhenever I write a critical article about Canadian companies, I have one particular friend jokingly ask me why I hate Canada so much. I laugh and tell him it’s because I’m an American trapped in a Canadian’s body, but the truth is it’s because I’m actually a patriot. If I criticize some of our businesses, it’s because I’d like to see them do better so that we can all do better relative to the rest of the world. That’s why I’m also quick to praise those businesses and individuals that are doing well.

Similarly, I get mad when Canada is unfairly criticized, or when inaccurate statements are made about it. Such was the case with a Huffington Post article over the weekend, headlined “The Slow and Painful Death of Freedom in Canada.” If ever there was a more over-wrought and wrong title, I’d like to see it. It was clearly meant to be provocative, so allow me to rise to the occasion.

The article, written by political science PhD candidate Adam Kingsmith, is predicated on the latest press freedom report from Reporters Without Borders. While Canada whooped it up as one of the freest countries in the land in 2012, landing in the top 10, this year it has plummeted to 20th overall.

The cause is explained on page 8 of the report:

[The drop] was due to obstruction of journalists during the so-called ‘Maple Spring’ student movement and to continuing threats to the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and Internet users’ personal data, in particular, from the C-30 bill on cyber-crime.

The article adds this up with other recent happenings, such as the passing of Bill C-309 – which prohibits the wearing of masks while taking part in a riot – Quebec’s requirement to register large assemblies, the Harper government’s muzzling of scientists and bureaucratic quagmires with access-to-information requests as evidence that our freedom is being eroded. Put it all together and it’s no surprise that Canada has lost its press freedom crown in the Western Hemisphere to Jamaica, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Is Canada becoming less free? If only the above is considered, then yes, it might be easy to come to that conclusion. Yet, when the more holistic picture is examined, the case becomes considerably weaker, if not absurd.

For one thing, consider that Canada ranks fifth in the United Nations’ World Happiness Survey. While economic prosperity plays a role in this assessment, far more important are less tangible factors such as governments “helping people meet their basic needs, reinforcing social systems, implementing active labour policies, improving mental health services, promoting compassion, altruism and honesty, and helping the public resist hyper-commercialism.”

The UN also consistently ranks Canada as one of the best countries in the world in which to live. This past year, we slipped out of the top 10, mainly because of a decline in education – if there’s an aspect of public policy worthy of concern, that would be it.

Harper critics like to believe that the world is ending, while Liberal haters do the same when the other guy is in charge. But partisanship aside, both UN findings consistently signify one thing: Canadians are generally a happy bunch and Canada is a pretty good place to live, regardless of who’s in power. That just wouldn’t be the case if the people who live here found it so damn un-free. Freedom is thus relative – if it’s the ultimate measure of happiness and prosperity, then Canada has it in spades.

In terms of press freedom, I found another story over the weekend to be quite noteworthy – that of former Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke suing to find out the identities of people who he says anonymously defamed him. Anyone who’s ever read a story online – and especially anyone who’s ever written one – can probably sympathize. Comments sections are often a cesspool for the nastiest of human tendencies, including potentially hurtful and libelous behavior.

If anything, Burke’s lawsuit highlights the fact that when it comes to the internet, people have perhaps too much freedom. As the old saying goes, the freedom to swing one’s fist ends where your neighbour’s nose begins. When the aluminum-hatted paranoiacs bemoan laws that prevent public anonymity as government conspiracies to control the masses, they conveniently forget that truism. Is it possible that such laws are actually enacted in an effort to preserve that right, and that perhaps they have even contributed to Canada’s good standings in happiness and desirability rankings?

There is a danger in conflating press freedom with actual freedom. Jamaica may rank higher than Canada in the Reporters Without Borders rankings, but all things considered, very few people would rather live there than here (it ranks 40th in the World Happiness Survey). While some of the recent negative developments in Canada are definitely of concern, we’re lucky enough to live in a country where if we truly don’t like something – say the aforementioned C-30 internet spying bill – we can peacefully rise up and make it go away.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I greatly prefer living in a country where the worst thing we have to worry about during elections are attack ads and robocalls. It’s a lot better than having politicians enlisting gangs to violently force people to vote for them, like they do in Jamaica. If that’s what freedom is, they’re welcome to it.


Posted by on April 29, 2013 in government


8 responses to “Press freedom doesn’t always equal true freedom

  1. Marc Venot

    April 29, 2013 at 12:26 am

    Maybe you can look how those “patriot” legislations (or its canadian equivalent) has been applied?

  2. Jonathan Blaine (@jonathanblaine)

    April 29, 2013 at 12:53 am

    Although the article you cite may be over the top, you don’t address that we as Canadians must be vigilant, especially now with the arguably extremist conservative government currently in power that has been, again arguably, forcing through laws that remove freedoms many Canadians have stood for over many decades. The country is quickly losing respect internationally while the electorate is largely asleep at the switch (and won’t start paying attention until just a few days prior to the next election, as is typical in Canada). Just because we are maintaining some distance from bad actors while losing some freedoms does not make what the government is doing, and how they’re doing it, acceptable.

    • Peter Nowak

      April 29, 2013 at 10:59 am

      Hey Jonathan – I think I did address the need to be vigilant above, but just in case, see my longer response to Sam below. As I said there, I think it’s too simplistic (or even cliche) to brand Canadians apathetic, since they’ve proven themselves capable of getting very passionate when the need arises. I didn’t vote for the Conservatives either, but they are a democratically elected majority government. If the majority of Canadians are displeased with them, they’ll eventually boot them out of power, and they will go peacefully. That’s what happens in a free, democratic society.

  3. Sam I R Davies

    April 29, 2013 at 9:36 am

    “Harper critics like to believe that the world is ending, while Liberal haters do the same when the other guy is in charge.”

    “Comments sections are often a cesspool for the nastiest of human tendencies, including potentially hurtful and libelous behavior.”

    Hmmmmm – sounds like you have been at the very least glancing the Maclean’s website.

    I’ve noticed that you have never participated in the comments threads for your stories, which I think is a shame. While there is a ton of stupidity and controlled responses (ie – people whose allegiance is likely tied to their employment), every now and then intelligent ideas and perspectives are discussed. At the very least, the Maclean’s comments threads seem to be the lesser of the evils, when compared to the ever so low bars set elsewhere. I often think of that most awesome Plato quote: “Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.”

    “Freedom is thus relative – if it’s the ultimate measure of happiness and prosperity, then Canada has it in spades.”

    Freedom is perceptual. As Jonathan has mentioned, the changes are happening in subtle and small steps (death by a hundred paper cuts). The ideal would be that Canadians be more vigilant, but I’m not holding my breath. Sadly, I think the last few years have pretty much dispelled the myth that Canadians are a step above Americans in the intelligence dept. The fact is, many Canadians lead very complicated and busy lives (work, family, leisure, etc.), and are often quite ignorant when it comes to the governing processes of all levels (municipal, provincial, and federal). As such, more often than not, the are willing to chase shiny objects. Toronto mayor Rob Ford is the perfect example of such a case – a pied piper of zero substance whom is a folk hero for those who are drawn towards the promise of a sound-byte (no taxes, SUBWAYS SUBWAYS SUBWAYS).

    Unfortunately, this is the era that we live in, where simple dumbed down propaganda is the key to victory. Politically, I consider myself non-partisan, as I have voted for parties all across the spectrum. With that said, I concede that my natural inclination is more centre to left orientated.

    I mention this because I believe this context is important for my critique of your critique of the Huffington Post sensationalism (which is obvious). My point is – sadly, this dumbed down approach is what works in today’s day and age. Amazingly, should anyone wish to discuss/debate substance, they get branded as elitist know-it-alls. The strategies that are employed by the government party focus on emotions, and pretty much mock any intelligent discussion on a matter. Sadly, the bar just keeps lowering and lowering, with very few even noticing that this is happening. It’s sad because there actually are intelligent Conservatives out there who have ideas/concerns that warrant attention.

    Feel free to take this with a grain of salt, but it should poke some holes in your “Canadians are happy” so freedom must be awesome in Canada justification. Ignorance is bliss. Or, given the context of the age (and for pure shock value), perhaps it would be more appropriate to say “Ignorance is strength”.

    “Burke’s lawsuit highlights the fact that when it comes to the internet, people have perhaps too much freedom”

    I am looking forward to how this plays out. Assuming that the allegations are entirely fictional, I really hope they find the douche-bags and set an example. I strongly believe in the freedom of concealing ones identity, but not when it is used to slander someone with invented facts. If someone is willing to present such claims as gospel truth, they better be ready to pay the piper. If anything, this exposes the dark and ugly side of sports fandom.

    Such is my contribution to the cesspool! 😉

    • Peter Nowak

      April 29, 2013 at 10:51 am

      Hi Sam – yes, there is the theory that if the writer joins in the comments section, he or she can lift the overall quality. However, as you know, doing that takes time, and each writer must decide how they want to spend their’s. As the cliche goes, time is money, and considering that I get paid to write and not to answer comments… well, that’s how it goes. I’d love to be wealthy enough to sit around answering comments all day, but I don’t yet have that level of freedom. ; ) That said, you may have noticed that I’m in the comments here on my own blog all the time. That’s because this is my own tiny little slice of the internet and I want to make sure that people feel welcome and enjoy it here. I actually just remarked on Twitter the other day how pleased I was with the recent high quality of comments, such as yours. So thanks – keep ’em coming, and I’ll do my best to chime in when I have time.

      I simply don’t buy the “things are getting worse” or “death by a thousand cuts” arguments because there’s no empirical measure to prove such statements (Reporters Without Borders’ report is based on a survey of talking to activists). In working on my next book, I’ve been looking at rafts of global data now for months that altogether suggests the opposite – that the world has been measurably improving for some time now.

      While negative political developments, such as say Quebec’s requirement to register large assemblies, are obvious, the positive ones are much less so, which is why they’re often forgotten. Think of all the ways in which the internet has created new freedoms or enriched existing ones. More people than ever before are free to communicate, virtually congregate, organize causes, quit their jobs and work at home, free themselves from suicide-inducing commutes, learn about anything they want, buy or sell anything they want, start a business for nothing, become an artist, and so on and so on. All of that can in fact be measured – which I’m doing for this book – and when weighed against those little paper cuts, it’s very obvious that we’ve never had so many choices, options and yes, freedom as we do now.

      I too don’t necessarily have a political leaning; I tend to vote on a case-by-case basis. I read an op-ed in the National Post a while ago (I’d link to it but I can’t find it) that I really liked and which argued against the conventional wisdom that low voter turnout in elections was a bad thing. The writer suggested it was actually a good thing, because people only get politically engaged when they’re concerned with how things are going. When they’re happy, they don’t care who’s in charge. I think writing Canadians off as typically apathetic is too simplistic a view. They’ve proven themselves to be very passionate when the need comes. Which is all to say that those needs just don’t come very frequently here, which is something we should very grateful for. Do we need to be vigilant? Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean making bogeymen of things that are not.

  4. J. Van Leeuwen

    April 29, 2013 at 10:16 am

    For a civilization to continue advancing, it must always define its progress in relation to aspirational principles of advancing personal freedom and social and intergenerational responsibility.

    Measuring progress in relation to other societies is a recipe for hubris, backsliding and mediocrity, and has led to the stall and decline of many advanced societies throughout recorded history.

    Canada has been backsliding for almost half a century, roughly since the time we celebrated our first century as a nation and were universally respected and celebrated for the principled examples we were setting for the world. Canada was then a leader in the most meaningful sense of the word.

    Almost an entire generation of us have now lived our adult lives as though personal freedom means freedom *from* social and intergenerational responsibility. We have failed to recognize (or chosen to ignore) social and integenerational responsibility as the very bedrock of our personal freedom.

    Aspiring to be carefree literally means abandoning social and intergenerational responsibility. It means becoming careless, and this is the legacy we have now created for ourselves. If our youth are uninspired, it is because we have failed to set inspiring examples for them.

    But it’s never too late to change…

    • jvanl

      April 29, 2013 at 11:12 am

      Never too late to set better examples.

  5. Jason Koblovsky

    April 29, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    In Canada I don’t agree that we are less free. I think J. Van Leeuwen said it best with his quote:

    “For a civilization to continue advancing, it must always define its progress in relation to aspirational principles of advancing personal freedom and social and intergenerational responsibility.”

    Journalists in Canada have been doing their part in reporting on issues such as the robocall scandal (or voter suppression as it should be known), Canadian scientists and MP backbenchers being muzzled etc. Reporting on issues of this matter are important to starting a national debate with the electrit on policy issues and style of governance on what they elected.

    In any democratic debate (and we’ve seen this in the copyright debates here in Canada) there will always be people on the other side of the debate looking to try and trump on personal freedoms to the extreme. However, in a democratic society those views expressed in debates like copyright help in advancing personal freedom. It allows society to approve or disapprove of positions on policy which is needed to ensure a healthy democratic environment. Regardless of how extreme or out of the box views are in some cases, it’s important for the advancement of policy debates especially during a time of economic, social and technological revolution. Just like the copyright debate, we currently have a government testing out the “grey” line with our election laws, and style of governing. In turn that creates a national debate on what type of government is best suited to social and intergenerational responsibility.

    As Canadians we are often polite, and curious, however when something gets our attention we act on mass, such as the #tellviceverything debate. There have been several examples of policy intervention by Canadians who have spoken out that have reversed Governments stances on issues, such as Usage Based Billing. I too find it hard to believe that Canadians are apathetic. I think it’s more of an issue of a lack of clear choices in policy platforms that matches what the electrit is looking for. I think a lot of that is due to the generational shift in politics right now, and a disconnect with voters. If Gen Y were to vote on mass we’d have a very different looking Government right now. Hardly any party has really targeted this bunch, and they are the ones right now most impacted by current economic policy. I think we can expect some movement at the polls with Gen Y next election.

    Sometimes it may not seem like it, but freedom is alive and well in Canada. Politics and policy seem to move at a slower pace than my finger nails however I’m a firm believer in not just the democratic system; I believe freedom is alive and well in Canada. The fact that people are commenting on this blog seem to support that assumption.

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