October 26, 2011

By NAKITA SINGH HANS

STAFF REPORTER

Government secrecy, terrorism laws and the regulation of new media are among the threats to press freedom that will be explored at a Ryerson University conference early this year.

“We’ve had 30 years of official press freedom in this country and I think it’s fair to say that a lot has been achieved in those 30 years but a lot remains to be achieved,” said Ivor Shapiro, chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. He said the conference will help define and focus attention on  issues related to press freedom in Canada.

“It will (also) help the public,” Shapiro said. “It is a way in which we can increase public understanding of press freedom, its achievements and limitations in this country and it will help isolate particular issues that really need to be worked on by journalists themselves or by advocates or by scholars.”

Press freedom in Canada: A status report on the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, scheduled to take place at Ryerson March 8-9, 2012, is being organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre and the Ryerson Law Research Centre The first day of the conference will feature panels and debates involving legal experts, professional journalists and journalism educators. The second day will feature presentations by scholars from across the country who will share their research findings on press freedom issues including the impact of technology; legislative initiatives including anti-terrorism laws; limits on court reporting; privacy concerns; government secrecy and information control; evolving media business models; and legal rulings related to libel and defamation.

Avner Levin, academic director of the Ryerson Law Research Centre, said he is looking forward to hearing innovative ideas out of the conference.

“There is importance in hearing what the established voices have to say on the first day, but I really like the academic second day where people are invited to discuss their work,” he said. “I’d like to see social media discussed (and) the idea of exploring blogs and tweets and looking at what their limits are and looking at professionally how they are used by journalists and what legal protection they are given.”

April Lindgren, the director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, said that in addition to marking the anniversary of the introduction of charter, the conference comes at a time of significant challenges to press freedom.

“When people think of restrictions on freedom of the press they think of overt efforts like the closing down of news organizations. What we’re looking at is more subtle, but no less threatening,” Lindgren said. “I hope that we will see discussions of government attempts to restrict and withhold information and why this matters to civil society.

“When you have a government that won’t take questions from reporters, or will only take a few questions from select reporters I think that is a restriction on press freedom…When a politician refuses to answer a reporter’s question, the politician is telling the public – the people who voted for this politician – to get lost,” Lindgren said.  “I hope one of the things this conference will do is create a greater public awareness of what a threat this is to a well-functioning democracy.”

Shapiro, who also chairs the ethics advisory committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists, said libel law can stifle journalists’ ability to report information of public interest.

“Then there are the various laws around covering the justice system which make it quite difficult for citizens to have access to information about courts and what’s going on in the courts and of course there are ways in which we ourselves in the media are being challenged by tough economics,” he observed. “Our ambition to stretch the boundaries of press freedom is (also) constrained by lack of resources, lack of corporate commitment and the sort of economic pressures that make it harder for us to do the job that we are expected to do.”

The proceedings of the conference will be published later in 2012.  Details of how to submit a proposal for a paper to be presented at the conference are available on the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre website.

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