Freedom of the press is the cornerstone of a democratic society and most Canadians would take this statement as given. Yet, as anything in life, if we take things for granted, they have a tendency to disappear. This is why the building blocks on which our freedom rests should never be taken for granted.
I suspect it was my growing up in Poland in the sixties and the seventies, when the country was still under Communism that makes me particularly sensitive to this topic.
In Canada, our freedom of the press “right” is enshrined in Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is a part of our Constitution.
Nonetheless, for very practical and important purposes, it is not what a constitution guarantees in writing which is important, but how these guarantees are applied to people’s lives that makes all the difference.
I can tell you, the constitution of the former Soviet state was one of the most progressive documents on the planet and it conferred all kinds of rights to its citizens. But it was a useless document for ordinary Soviet people because the state did what it wanted, without any concern for what was written in the constitution.
We are very fortunate in Canada to have strong, independent courts and a long tradition of democratic rule based on respect for the law and freedom of the press.
This does not mean our politicians sometimes don’t have problems with the press. Early last year, Paul Berton, editor-in-chief of The Hamilton Spectator, wrote an editorial piece on the need for more government transparency.
The editorial was in response to a report that “members of the Hamilton council went behind closed doors to discuss a report criticizing them for too often going behind closed doors.” Spectator columnist Andrew Dreschel, cited by Mr. Berton, called the spectacle “a piece of irony so rich it crosses into satire.”
Most observers of Canadian politics can agree that politicians, on all levels, have a hard time with journalists. This manifests itself through all party lines and is not reserved for any particular political sentiment.
According to Mr. Berton from The Hamilton Spectator, “many (but not all) politicians see the media as the enemy.”
Politicians often interpret the journalist’s questions with suspicion and sometimes even complain that journalists fail to report accurately and only interpret what they hear. In a democracy, where journalists are not required to tow a party line, these kinds of complaints should not be a surprise.
In this context, one can imagine that senior editors or publishers sometimes hear from politicians about this or that reporter with whose story they are displeased. If then, those same politicians, threaten to pull much needed advertising dollars, the strain is felt not just on the life blood of the press, but on democracy itself.
For Canadians, the importance of a free press came into sharp focus with recent revelations about abuse of expenses in our Senate. If not for the hard work of various journalists and media organizations, this story could have very well been swept under the carpet.
So journalists not only uncover and bring to us the wrongdoings of political officials but often start important national debate on issues which governments of the day would rather not discuss at all.
For example, if not for the free press, The Guardian and The Washington Post would not have reported the revelations of the American tech worker who told us about widespread U.S. government “record keeping” of telephone and internet usage data. The publishing of these revelations by British and American journalists sparked a debate in the US, Europe and Canada about the limits of government intrusion into our electronic lives.
Because we cherish where we live, it is important for all of us to be vigilant and guard those freedoms which protect our way of life. A free press is vital if we want to keep the wheels of democracy moving.