Currently viewing the tag: "free speech"

By JASMINE BALA
Staff reporter

Documentary filmmaker James Cullingham and exiled Mexican journalist Luis Horacio Nájera were featured speakers on March 9, 2017, at a Ryerson University panel about attacks on journalists in Mexico. (Jasmine Bala)

Mexico’s drug cartels are making full use of cyberspace to mount a campaign of intimidation targeting the country’s journalists and society, says exiled Mexican journalist Luis Horacio Nájera.

Since he fled Mexico in 2008, the drug cartels’ presence on social media has expanded and they now broadcast torture, decapitations and killings on blogs like Blog Del Narco, Nájera said during a March 9 presentation at the Ryerson School of Journalism.

Nájera, who is now the PEN Canada George Brown Writer-in-Residence, said reporting on drug cartels and political corruption is now so dangerous for journalists that it is difficult for them to find safe havens inside the country: “Mexico City, before, was considered a safe place or safe city. But now, this is also a place of risk for journalists.”

In 2015, news magazine Proceso’s photojournalist Rubén Espinosa received threats in Veracruz and fled to Mexico City for safety, where he was subsequently assassinated. His colleague, Proceso crime reporter Regina Martinez Pérez, had been found dead in her Veracruz home in 2012.

No one knows who killed them, said James Cullingham, a documentary filmmaker and journalism professor at Seneca College, who appeared on the panel with Nájera.

“It could have been cartels, it could have been the state government of Veracruz or a police force in Veracruz in collusion with the cartels,” said Cullingham, who teaches a course on Mexico’s relationship to Canada and the United States. “Most of these deaths are not solved and the investigations are either immediately discredited or are so suspect that nobody in Mexico believes them, and in both [of these cases]…no one knows. They were journalists who were investigators and they were killed.”

Former president Felipe Calderón launched Mexico’s war on drug cartels in December 2006. Since then, at least 80,000 people have died in organized crime-related incidents according to estimates in a 2015 report released by the Congressional Research Service.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported last year that 107 journalists were murdered between 2000 and September 2015, making Mexico “one of the most dangerous countries in the world to practice journalism.”

Just last week, Armando Arrieta Granados, the editorial director of the Veracruz newspaper La Opinión, was shot and remains in serious condition, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. A few days earlier on March 23, Miroslava Breach Velducea, a correspondent for the national newspaper La Jornada, was killed as she was leaving her home in Chihuahua.

Nájera said that in his case he was working for Grupo Reforma back in February 2008 when he and a group of journalists wrote a story on a military operation targeting a Juárez Cartel safe house. The day after the story was published, the journalists received a threatening email saying: “You have to stop or we’re going to chop your heads, including you and including those police officers and soldiers who participated in this raid against us.”

Nájera wrote in a 2010 report released by the Committee to Protect Journalists that a reliable source informed him that his name was on an organized crime hit list because of his reporting on the Juárez drug wars.

“Having seen the pervasive climate of violent crime and impunity,” he wrote, “I could not trust the government and I could not simply let myself be killed under some lonely streetlight. In September 2008, I left Mexico with my family and went to Vancouver, Canada.”

Cullingham said many major media organizations in Mexico no longer use bylines in efforts to protect their journalists. Other news organizations have stopped covering crime altogether and “are saying ‘we’ve just walked away from the story. We can’t have our reporters killed regularly,’” he said.

While the situation in Mexico is dire, Cullingham said, reporters are still committed to documenting what is going on in the country: “It amazes me that [they] continue to produce journalism under these conditions…People are risking their lives to try and tell the story.”

The Mexican government, he noted, has taken some steps to protect journalists, including adopting the 2012 Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. It allows the state to offer various forms of protection to journalists at risk, including portable pocket-sized panic buttons, bodyguards and police patrols. A report published by the Washington Office on Latin America and Peace Brigades International, however, found that these measures are “often not adequately implemented.”

Journalists and investigators, Nájera said, are no longer the only ones being targeted by the cartels.

“Before they were [threatening] police officers, journalists, people who were working on these things,” he said. These were “threats to press freedom, but this is moving towards threats to freedom of expression, which includes civil society and that’s the bigger risk for Mexico.”

The presentation by Nájera and Cullingham was co-sponsored by Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression and the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

Watch the full panel below:

By MAIJA KAPPLER
Special to the RJRC

Lisa Taylor

Ryerson School of Journalism instructor Lisa Taylor.

An archaic Canadian law against criminal libel is being used with increasing frequency to shut down political dissent and criticism of police officers, judges and powerful institutions, new research by Ryerson University journalism professor Lisa Taylor suggests.

Convictions for criminal libel averaged 18 cases per year between 2005 and 2008, Taylor found. She and her research partner David Pritchard of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee combed through digital archives, criminal judgements and media reports to assemble the data and found that the number of convictions has grown steadily. Between 2009 and 2012, there were 37.7 criminal libel convictions annually – more than double the earlier figure.

A quarter of these convictions are cases related to political dissent, in which individuals were charged for taking on powerful organizations. That means charges have been laid for crimes like warning against police brutality, protesting controversial rulings by judges and criticizing municipal authorities on Facebook.

Many legal scholars consider the criminalization of critical or insulting language to be anachronistic. It would be easy enough to assume that it’s only implemented in extraordinarily rare cases, Taylor says — but that’s not what happens.

“When I think ‘extraordinarily rare,’ I’m thinking four-leaf clovers, albino alligators,” Taylor, a lawyer by training, said during a Nov. 1 presentation organized by Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression. The growing number of criminal libel convictions point to prosecutions that aren’t as rare as everyone thought.

Libel is usually a civil issue. If an individual’s reputation suffers because something untrue or unfair has been written or broadcast about them, the usual course of events would involve launching a suit and seeking financial restitution. Writers, editors, producers and media organizations can all be sued for libel, and plaintiffs are entitled to more money if they’ve suffered extreme humiliation or shown that the defendants acted with malice.

For individuals and media organizations, the threat of civil libel charges is a deterrent against treating people with carelessness or callousness. Losing a libel case and having to pay damages is a punitive measure.

But libel can also be a criminal offence. Under Canada’s Criminal Code, “defamatory libel” is punishable by a prison term of up to two years, or up to five if the defendants knew that what they were publishing was false. Taylor and Pritchard’s research focused mainly on Sections 300 and 301 of the code. Section 300 carries a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison for libelous speech that is a “known falsehood,” while Section 301 carries a two-year maximum sentence for any defamatory libel.

Another surprising feature of the law is that a person can be charged with criminal libel even if what they published is true. A plaintiff can’t win a civil case if what’s been said about them is demonstrably true, no matter how defamatory. But in a criminal case, unlike a civil case, truth is not a defence.

Criminal libel prosecutions usually fall into two categories. Taylor says the first category, political dissent libel, makes up about 25 per cent of criminal libel cases and involves “strong, harsh, maybe dishonest language against powerful people.”

Karen MacKinnon, a former city councillor in Drumheller, Alberta, was charged twice under Section 301 of the Criminal Code for a Facebook post in which she called a local politician and an Alberta Crown prosecutor “repulsive, corrupted, lying, thieving, deviant bastards both” and, in a later post, called that same prosecutor “a pet kangaroo.”

David Charney, at the time an Osgoode Hall law student and well-known activist against violent police practices, was charged with criminal libel for distributing posters that accused a specific police officer of brutality. (The charges were dropped and the case became a civil matter six months later, but nothing ever came of it.)

In another case, a man picketed a judge who had awarded custody of his children to the man’s ex-wife, who then fled the jurisdiction; the man was charged with criminal libel for bearing a sign that said the judge permits child abuse. The charges were dropped, but not until two and a half years later.

Taylor told the audience at the Ryerson School of Journalism that the power dynamics in these cases negate the need for libel action — criminal or otherwise. Judges, prison guards and police officers should be able to withstand criticism from the people they have authority over, even if some of that criticism is harsh or even untrue.

“Only the most naïve person could ever assume one of these positions and imagine that people are only going to say nice things about them,” Taylor said. “They’re powerful people. We are critical of power. We should be critical of power.”

Even when nothing comes of these charges — when they’re dropped after a few months, or end up as civil case that go nowhere the threat of criminal prosecution has a chilling effect. Taylor referred to something her co-researcher Pritchard said: In these cases, having to contend with possible jail time is enough to discourage and to penalize. The process is the punishment.

The second kind of criminal libel prosecution is less obviously defensible. Failed relationship libel usually occurs after an intimate relationship has ended and one party sets out to smear the other. In one case Taylor examined, a man put up posters with his ex-girlfriend’s name and photo that falsely accused her of pedophilia.

Taylor said that eliminating criminal libel law wouldn’t mean allowing that kind of behaviour to go unchallenged. The woman would have easily won a civil case, and the fact that she opted to go to the police instead demonstrates the financial inaccessibility of civil lawsuits (the woman was a student at the time). If the ex-boyfriend continued his attack campaign, Taylor added, there are many other criminal offenses that would cover his crime: criminal harassment, for example, intimidation or incitement of hatred.

Taylor argued that criminal libel should be removed from Canada’s Criminal Code. It is “antithetical to free expression,” a right protected by Canada’s charter, she said, noting that the U.K. has dispensed with its criminal libel laws and there are no federal criminal libel laws in the U.S. (although some states do still have criminal libel laws on the books.)

Canada’s criminal libel law, she said, is being used in lieu of more specific laws. It serves no legitimate purpose, Taylor argues, and keeping the contradictory and unclear law on the books has troubling repercussions: it criminalizes dissent against powerful groups and is an affront to free speech.

“It’s abuse of power, full stop,” says Taylor.

By ILINA GHOSH

Staff Reporter

Recently freed Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy thanked his supporters Tuesday, while criticizing the Harper government’s lack of effort and diplomatic bungles during his detainment in Egypt.

“While you here, citizens in Canada and around the world, clearly understood the urgency of the situation we faced in prison in Egypt, the Harper government did not,” Fahmy said at a press conference at the Ryerson University School of Journalism organized by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

Recently freed journalist Mohamed Fahmy addresses a news conference hosted by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression at Ryerson University's School of Journalism.

Recently freed journalist Mohamed Fahmy addresses a news conference hosted by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism on Oct. 13. [Ilina Ghosh]

Fahmy, 41, was working for Al Jazeera when he was arrested in Egypt in 2013 and put on trial for airing what Egyptian courts branded “false news” and coverage biased towards the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. He was sentenced to three years in prison earlier this year after a court process that was widely denounced by critics.

Fahmy said he initially felt disbelief  when he was told Prime Minister Stephen Harper was doing little to pressure the Egyptian government for his release.

“In my cell, I refused to recognize at the beginning that Mr. Harper was not putting his full clout behind me, I just couldn’t accept that. Then I realized there was a chorus from the international community of journalists and politicians, even Egyptian officials telling us that ‘Mr. Harper was not there for you.’

“Sitting in that prison cell, it was difficult not to feel betrayed and abandoned by Prime Minister Harper,” he said.

“Today, I want to start a conversation in Canada about how we as Canadians want our government to act when one of our citizens is wrongfully detained in a foreign jurisdiction,” he told reporters.

He said he would like to talk to the winner of the Oct. 19 federal election about how such situations should be handled in the future.

There needs to be communication between leaders, “from the highest levels of government, immediately when the arrest happens because that is the best time for intervention. If there is any chance of being deported or extracted, it is between the time you are arrested and when the case goes to court,” Fahmy said.  

“It can happen tomorrow to any innocent Canadian,” he said, adding that citizens in trouble abroad need a government “that supports us 100 per cent.”

Fahmy says he wants to start "a conversation in Canada" about how to better protect citizens in trouble abroad. [Ilina Ghosh]

Fahmy says he wants to start “a conversation in Canada” about how to better protect citizens in trouble abroad, calling the Harper government’s approach to his case “very mild.” [Ilina Ghosh]

Fahmy said the Harper government’s “very mild” efforts on his behalf prolonged his ordeal.

“Our prime minister delegated his responsibility to people who lacked the clout to really get me out of there,” he said.

“The junior ministers and ambassadors on the ground were diligent and well-intentioned and they visited me and made sure that I was doing well and they provided advice, but they didn’t have the authority to plead directly with President el-Sisi and that was what I needed, more than anything.”

He compared Canadian efforts to Australia’s successful campaign to free his Al Jazeera colleague, Australian citizen Peter Greste, who was released this February, while Fahmy was released in September.

“I do understand that Canada escalated their approach after the constructive critique we launched after my colleague was deported and I was left behind.”

Australia’s response, however, was strong from beginning, Fahmy said: “The Australian prime minister, as far as I understand, called President el-Sisi right from the get go several times calling for Peter’s release and then called to thank [el-Sisi] after he was released.

“This case should be a lesson about intervention from the highest levels immediately,” he said.

Fahmy was also critical of then-foreign affairs minister John Baird, insisting that Baird jeopardized his release when he said Canada would not prosecute Fahmy if Egypt let him go.

In an interview with media critic Jesse Brown earlier this month, Fahmy said that “all the journalists who attended the press conference where Mr. Baird announced that were shocked that he said it. That immediately kills what the Egyptians were trying to do, which is get rid of me in a face-saving manner.”

During the press conference, Fahmy repeatedly acknowledged the efforts of those who fought for his release.

“I am here because of you guys, thank you so much. Me and my wife and my family, we are very grateful to everyone in Canada who fought for this stranger,” Fahmy said.

“In that solitary confinement for one month, with no access to sunlight or even a way to tell time, I still somehow got news that there were rallies outside and people fighting for us and it did make a difference, it raised my morale and I probably survived because of your support outside.”

Fahmy thanked human rights organizations and the press, along with citizens who supported grassroots campaigns for his release.

“I’m very happy that every single person tweeted and signed the petition and all the organizations that asked Prime Minister Harper to intervene and put all his clout behind me,” he said.

“If you ever doubt that these campaigns make a difference – I am living proof that they do.”

Fahmy said he intends to vote on Oct. 19, but as a journalist “cannot endorse anyone.” His meetings on press freedom with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau on Monday and NDP leader Tom Mulcair later on Tuesday should not be interpreted as support, he insisted after the meeting.

However, during the press conference, he expressed repeated gratitude for the two leaders’ help during his ordeal, the support they provided to his family and the push they gave the prime minister for stronger intervention in his case.

“There are no words to describe how it feels when you are wrongly convicted, sitting in a cold cell, festering with insects, nursing a broken shoulder. But when you’re there, your only hope is that your prime minister will do everything in his power to get you out of there.”

The Conservative government, he noted, “refused” to talk to him, his international lawyer Amal Clooney or his lawyers in Canada.

While he did not endorse a specific party, he added: “You do know who I am not voting for. That’s for sure.”

Fahmy said he will also continue with his lawsuit against Al Jazeera, for the part he believes it played in his conviction and imprisonment.

“There can be no doubt that Al Jazeera endangered me and my team,” he said, by not arranging proper broadcast licences, commencing a lawsuit against Egypt a month before the verdict in his criminal trial knowing it would be “devastating” to his case, and against the warnings of Al Jazeera staff,  dubbing Fahmy’s English news reports into Arabic and rebroadcasting them on an illegal Arabic network labelled as a “national security threat” by Egyptian courts.

“No news network should be permitted to compromise journalistic ethics or the safety of its journalists. When a network betrays journalists and journalism in this way, as Al Jazeera did, we journalists and citizens who believe in the importance of the free press must hold them accountable,” he said.

Now back at home, Fahmy has accepted a teaching position at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism and plans to write a book about his experiences.

He will also continue his work with the Fahmy Foundation, an organization he founded with his wife, Marwa Omara, that advocates for wrongly imprisoned journalists and the protection of free speech.