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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.”


Kiyomi French, a graduate student in Masters of Spatial Analysis program, illustrated just how strongly correlated the number of journalists killed is with press freedom in this map she made for her cartography class. Here’s why she took on the project and what she found:

You’re not a journalism student – why did you do this map?

My dad was a journalist for the Globe and Mail and he was always travelling and sharing his amazing stories with us. Sometimes my mom, brother and I would get to tag along on these trips and we went to places such as Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. I always thought he was so lucky to have a job that allowed him to travel like that. When my brother and I got a little older, my father started to share his darker stories with us—of corruption and the troubles many of his colleagues have faced because of it. My brother followed in my dad’s footsteps and he writes for a paper in the Northwest Territories and I’m always interested to hear about his investigative work and read his stories. It makes me feel like he’s not so far away. I chose to map this topic because I thought it would be an effective way to raise awareness of the dangers associated with reporting around the world.

What does the map tell us?

It shows the total number of journalists who have been killed (motive confirmed) in each country since 2010 and relates those numbers to the 2014 World Press Freedom scores, which are assigned annually to reflect the level of freedom journalists and organizations have to communicate information within each country. The overall goal of this map was to visualize the global disparities in press freedom and explore links between press freedom and the dangers associated with being a journalist. The map shows that over the past five years, journalists have been killed all over the world and that the risk is generally greatest in areas where press freedom is more limited.

Why should Canadian journalists care?

This map depicts a strong correlation between high freedom of press scores and high kill counts, suggesting that press freedom scores strongly indicate how safe a country is for working journalists. However, there are also several outliers, mostly notably India, where a relatively high level of press freedom is nonetheless associated with quite a high number of murders of journalists, a correlation that suggests other variables come into play. Outliers like this suggest that journalists should not use freedom of press scores alone to gauge how careful they should be when working abroad.

Did anything surprise you about the map?

When I started creating the map, the one thing that really surprised me were the statistics. I chose to map only the total number of journalists confirmed killed by crossfire, murder or dangerous assignments. However when other media workers and those who were victims of unsolved murders, or went missing, imprisoned or exiled are also considered, I found the number of journalists who have run into problems around the world while on assignment to be shocking and sad. The statistics go back as far as 1992 and are available from the Committee to Protect Journalists website.