People around the world reacted with understandable alarm when gunmen went on a rampage Jan. 7 at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France, killing 11 employees in a methodical slaughter at the magazine’s office and also one policeman.
It was a horrific massacre which left the world clamoring for ways to unite in a stand against which was almost uniformly described as an egregious attack on the freedom of the press. But will the fallout of the attacks result in greater guarantees of press freedom around the world? Likely not.
For those who may not have been paying attention, press freedom has been vigorously under attack the past number of years, a trend that can be traced back to reactionary measures and an overarching culture of secrecy in Western governments since the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
So it was with a cynical and somewhat jaundiced eyes that I watched world leaders — many of whom are guilty of infringing upon press freedoms in their own countries — march in solidarity with the employees Charlie Hebdo in a show of force in defense of press freedom.
At least U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration has earned a spot in history for its unprecedented attacks on the press and their sources of information, had the good sense not to attend while New York Times reporter James Risen faced jail time for refusing to reveal the source of damning information about the CIA in his book State of War.
Yes, the new millenium has not been terribly kind to the media worldwide. Reporters are being jailed, killed, censored and threatened at a greater rate than any other time in history, and not just in third-rate banana republics, but here in North America as well.
Even Canada would be hardpressed to continue to exhort our nation as still “glorious and free”, at least when it comes to press freedom. According to a 2013 report by Reporters Without Borders, Canada plummeted 10 spots to rank a dismal 20th in its 2012 press freedom index, behind even Jamaica. An egregious example of the government’s growing disregard for press freedom was the RCMP’s arrest of reporter Miles Howe – not just once but three times – while covering the 2013 native anti-fracking protests in New Brunswick, prompting a caustic press release from the Canadian Association of Journalists deploring the police’s detention of Howe as “inexcusable”.
Of course, Cornwall is not without sin when it comes to the public’s right to know. During the previous term of Cornwall city council, there were numerous cases where the rights of press and public were infringed through the withholding of information regarding meeting times and places, and the expenditure of public monies on legal fees and severance packages. On one occasion then mayor Bob Kilger (Kilger later apologized) and councillor Glen Grant even attempted to evict me from city hall during an in-camera session, but relented after I challenged them to call me into the council chambers for an open vote on what was clearly a drastic case of overreach by Kilger and his crew.
Most recently, we have seen South Stormont Council consider limiting the charter rights of the public and media by restricting their ability to record audio and video of the township council meetings at its otherwise welcoming chambers in Long Sault. Just based on his past experience alone as a councillor on the former Osnabruck township, Mayor Jim Bancroft should know better. But, that being said, I can understand why this council feels a need to restore order in its court. Although the majority of professional journalists know how to conduct themselves properly while covering public meetings, it has not been the case with everyone, meaning some mandated level of decorum may be needed to keep the township’s meetings from degenerating into the circus atmosphere of the past term.
Any perceived attempt to control or muzzle the press is not to be taken likely. But at the same time, people must realize there has ever been freedom of the press, at least in the most liberal interpretation of the concept. There have always been rules of conduct for journalists beginning with their tenure at the journalism school of their choice, and often carried over and perhaps even expanded by the publication at which they worked. One of the guidelines that was reinforced when I attended journalism school could be best described as the rule of unobtrusive observance. Journalists were expected to blend in like a piece of furniture, recording proceedings while carefully ensuring they themselves did not become part of the actual event they are entrusted to observe. So engrained was this philosophy that early in my career I would refuse to even answer questions during a meeting from a council member. I had a standard reply that I would issue in each instance: “I am sorry, but I am not here to participate in the meeting, I am here to cover it.”
Freedom of the press does not mean a free for all. Reporters, photographers and television camera persons must respect certain rules and limits when attending press conferences held by politicians, government institutions, and police agencies. Even entertainment reporters are not free to mob whomever they wish on the red carpet during Hollywood events, perenially held back by an iron fence made of velvet rope.
The media of course is not without fault either as it struggles to maintain public trust and faces diminished relevance in the world of real-time news from Twitter activists complemented with video from apps like Vimeo to provide the world an almost real-time window into news on the ground hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Scandals that have tarnished the perceived objectivity of CBC star anchors and reporters, coupled with the Jian Gomeshi affair do little to restore the public’s already cynical view of mainstream media. What is even more disturbing was the allegations against Gomeshi were well-known in media circles until the story was broken by Jesse Brown’s upstart news site Canadaland with the help of the Toronto Star.
So where does freedom of the press begin in end? Where do we draw the line, if a line should be drawn at all? Should the publication of cartoons denigrating leaders of all of the world’s religions — Christianity included — be a protected right? Do the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo serve a public purpose or are they the journalist equivalent of jamming a thumb into the eye of religious extremists for no reason other than to create a response?
As seen during the Mike Brown protests in Ferguson, Missouri, anyone with a phone and a livestreaming capability can essentially be considered a journalist. So what is journalism? What is acceptable behaviour for bloggers and citizen journalists who are attempting to fill a void that they believe has been created by the mainstream news industry? Ignorance is not an excuse under the law, should the same dictum apply to those trying to practice journalism without the proper education and professional training? Should news organizations implement their own codes of conduct or should they rely on the institutions which they cover to dictate the rules of engagement?
These are all difficult questions and if they were posed to 100 people, likely all of them would come up with different answers. But it is important that the questions at least be asked.
Greg Kielec is an award-winning reporter and newspaper editor with more than 25 years experience covering municipal politics in Cornwall in the surrounding area. He most recently worked for The/Le Journal, where he covered Cornwall City Hall extensively. Prior to that he spent more than 10 years at the Standard-Freeholder in Cornwall as reporter, wire editor and assistant city editor.