Asper Centre and IHRP Co-Host Canadian Media Freedom Symposium

Angela Gu (1L)

On Friday March 6, 2020, the Faculty of Law’s David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights (Asper Centre) and the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) co-hosted a symposium on Canadian media freedom. This by invitation only symposium brought together a small group of academics, civil society organizations, media experts, and leading practitioners to examine the state of media freedom and the law in Canada. 

The symposium developed from the research by students at the Faculty of Law taking part in the IHRP’s clinical legal education Media Freedom Model Laws Project. The course is led by Adjunct Professor Vincent Wong, who is the William C. Graham Research Associate at the IHRP. Wong facilitated the symposium with a number of the clinic’s students. 

The goal of the symposium was to critically examine the various legal and non-legal challenges that threaten freedom of the press in Canada in the current political climate. The day’s conversations focused on legal and policy threats to media freedom in Canada.

The morning featured an opening address by Professor Irwin Cotler, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. Professor Cotler spoke of topics including Canada’s discretionary and uneven application of Magnitsky legislation, sanctioning against various human-rights violators, in the context of media freedom. He emphasized that the culture of impunity needed to be replaced with a culture of accountability. 

Following Professor Colter’s address, the student researchers - James Flynn (2L), Isaac Gazendam (2L), Julie Lowenstein (3L) and Sonia Patel (3L) - gave an overview of their class’s research themes, which included trends in hate speech, defamation and libel, misinformation and disinformation, national security and public order, systemic restrictions to media, and whether there should be a discrete right to the freedom of the press.  

In the afternoon, symposium attendees broke out into small round-robin circles to discuss the themes in more detail, with conversations guided by the student researchers. Some groups’ discussion was more heavily grounded in case law, while others explored the broader social trends that influence policy decisions. 

The groups reconvened to debrief, and the student researchers highlighted some points of discussion that came up in the round-robin conversations: 

  • Who counts as a journalist for determining who gets journalistic privileges and protections, and whether broadening the definition could enhance press freedom 
  • How the law can help protect against extreme forms of hate online
  • Possibly categorizing social media platforms as publishers to place more of an onus on them to regulate the spread of false information as part of the ongoing conversation on how to legislate to regulate media in the digital context 
  • Systemic restrictions on expression due to forms of governmental media funding, and how to maintain a free and independent press, especially with the collapse of local news media due to financial strains
  • The barriers posed by Canada’s current system which hinders the freedom of the press, as certain documents are inaccessible, and when available, the documents come redacted, delayed, or with fees attached, and the need to work towards a regime where the default is free access to information 
  • The chilling effect on expression caused by insufficient whistleblower protection 
  • Whether media exclusion zones can ever be justified using the Oakes test as per Section 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, discussed in the context of the RCMP’s exclusion zones on Wet’suwet’en territory 
  • The need for federal anti-SLAPP legislation to prevent the stifling of freedom of expression, as provincial anti-SLAPP legislation to encourage public dialogue can be evaded by forum shopping 

The symposium’s discussions and presentations will be used to inform summary reports, with a view to shaping future advocacy efforts. The clinic students are hoping to release the advocacy report next fall.