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Staff reporter

Ryerson journalism professor Lisa Taylor, co-editor of The Unfulfilled Promise of Press Freedom in Canada.

Threats to press freedom are actually threats to the public’s right to know, says the co-editor of a new book that examines efforts to undermine Canadian journalists’ abilities to do their jobs.

Lisa Taylor, a lawyer, award-winning journalist and assistant professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism (RSJ), said that the discourse surrounding press freedom in recent years is worrisome because it overlooks the real cost of restrictions on journalistic work.

“Journalists don’t seek access to information so that they can just talk to other journalists about it,” Taylor said. “The end game is in sharing it with the public, and I think somewhere along the line we’ve lost sight of the idea that all the media are is a surrogate for the public.

“The public can’t drop everything and go to court for a day. The public can’t make it their job to spend weeks tracking down information and accessing it through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Journalists don’t do it to benefit journalists, they do it to benefit the world at large. Press freedom is not really a freedom for the press, it’s a freedom for the people who receive information from the press.”

The Unfulfilled Promise of Press Freedom in Canada, edited by Taylor and Cara-Marie O’Hagan, the former director of the Ryerson Law Research Centre, is a collection of essays by academics, journalists, lawyers and others. The edited volume, Taylor writes in an opening note, explores how press freedom has been constrained by “governmental interference, threats of libel suits and financial constraints.”

Taylor said the chapters examine press freedom “from many different angles,” an approach that makes it different than other books on the topic.

“It was exciting because I think often academics write stuff that only other academics read, or journalists write about this issue and academics don’t bother with what journalists have to say about it,” Taylor explained. “So as someone who has been a journalist, works as an academic and has worked as a lawyer, it was, quite selfishly, really exciting to pull together these three worlds that I’ve inhabited.”

Contributors to the collection include RSJ professors Ivor Shapiro and Gavin Adamson, City of Vaugan integrity commissioner Suzanne Craig, court reporter Robert Koopmans and former CBC media lawyer Daniel Henry. They cover topics ranging from press freedom and privacy in the digital sphere to reporters’ access to information during court proceedings and the press freedom provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Taylor’s own chapter discusses the difficulty of rescinding publication bans on the identity of sexual assault complainants who want their bans lifted. These bans automatically come into effect if either the prosecutor or the complainant ask for it. Not only do the bans prevent media from publishing the identity of complainants, Taylor writes, they also prevent complainants from identifying themselves as sexual assault survivors during and after proceedings. This impedes the complainant’s charter rights under section 2(b), she continues, which states that everyone has the “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”

“What happens is, if we have a willing sexual assault complainant who would like to speak to the press they are prevented from speaking publicly,” Taylor said in an interview. “[This] means that the press is also prevented from disseminating their words. So it’s just another way in which press freedom is hampered.”

Taylor suggests a more flexible approach is required, one that will “ensure that the complainant who wants to have the protection of the statute will still have that opportunity, while the complainant who chooses to speak out will be able to exercise the rights she is guaranteed under the charter.”

The book draws on papers presented during Press Freedom in Canada: A status report on the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a 2012 conference organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

When the charter was put into place in 1982, Taylor said, it looked like journalists finally had the guarantees of press freedom they needed. As it turned out, however, that was an overly optimistic assessment.

Before the charter was enacted, “we saw unfair restrictions on the press [and] we saw simple FOI applications take weeks, months or even years to be fulfilled,” Taylor said. “Back when it was first enshrined, there’s no way I could have imagined that in 2017 we’d be fighting a lot of the same battles. It just looked like it was on its way out. There was great promise that came with the charter and we just haven’t seen it fully realized. In fact, we’ve seen some back steps.”


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.