By KAILAH BHARATH

STAFF REPORTER

Thirty years after Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteed a free press, judges suffering from “judicial cowardice” still ignore the rules and impose limits on media coverage of the courts, retired judge John Gomery told a Ryerson University conference on press freedom.

“It’s safer to suppress the facts until you’re sure they’re not going to do any harm than to allow things to just roll out and to live with the consequences later,” said Gomery, who retired from the Quebec Superior Court in 2007 and is now president of the Quebec Press Council.

Judges are also conservative people who don’t want anything to “rock the boat” during trials, he said.

Gomery, who led the headline-grabbing inquiry into the federal sponsorship scandal nearly a decade ago, was part of a panel titled “Press Freedom: Where do we stand now?”  that launched the two-day conference on press freedom. The conference was organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre and the Ryerson Law Research Centre to mark the 30th anniversary of the Charter.

Other journalists and lawyers on the panel – Toronto Star editor-in-chief Michael Cooke, Now Magazine editor-in-chief Alice Klein, CBC counsel Daniel Henry and broadcaster and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression board member Paula Todd – recited a litany of discrepancies between what the Charter says and  the actual freedoms Canadian media possess. 

“I believe journalists in this country and this city are still prisoners of the self-appointed and self-perpetuated elite,” said Cooke, who accused politicians, administrators and bureaucrats of hiding information from the press. In addition to the courts, he said organizations such as the Canadian Bar Association and Ontario’s College of Physicians and Surgeons are overly secretive, particularly when it comes to disciplinary hearings.

“It’s justice in secret and it’s wrong,” he insisted.

“We don’t cherish the Charter, and frankly most of us don’t know about it and I’m not even sure if Canadians in general care about it very much,” Cooke told the lecture hall filled with more than 150 students, journalists, lawyers and academics.

CBC counsel Daniel Henry said journalists need to be better educated about their rights.

“I would hope that you would take the piece of paper that is the Charter and continue to breathe life into it by relying on it and demanding that your rights are respected,” he told the crowd.

Henry also noted that cameras are not welcome in Canadian courtrooms except in Quebec, Nova Scotia and some parts of Newfoundland, despite a Charter right “theoretically that includes freedom of the press and other media of communication.”

“We have had some access, but we need a lot more,” Henry said. “The public has a right to be there, to hear, to see everything that is said in all its descriptions and all its facets and it’s high time for Canadians to have access to that.”

Now Magazine’s Klein accused the federal government of undermining information gathering and “muzzling” scientists to prevent them from sharing their findings with journalists and the public.

Despite the long list of concerns aired at the session, Cooke said he remains optimistic about the future.

“I don’t think this is a bad time for Canadian journalism, especially in Toronto. It’s a great time. In Toronto we have seven daily newspapers, the Post, the Star, the Globe, the Sun, 24 Hours, Metro and TO Tonight. We’ve never had seven daily newspapers in this town. We have more outlets for journalism today in 2012 than we’ve ever had in this city before. It’s a great time to be a journalist.

“You just have to be relentless (when it comes to press freedom) and never give up.”

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