TORONTO – One of Canada’s leading free speech groups is warning that a low-profile bill – coming up for second reading debate in the House of Commons today – could severely weaken the journalistic integrity of the CBC and cripple its ability to protect its journalistic sources.
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) has written to government ministers and opposition members to express its grave concerns about Bill C-461 which proposes amendments to both the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act.
Sponsored by Conservative backbencher MP Brent Rathgeber, the bill would repeal the protections that the CBC – like all other public broadcasters in developed Parliamentary democracies – enjoys to safeguard its journalistic, creative and programming activity.
Instead, the bill would amend the Access Act so that the CBC would have to prove, in each and every case, that releasing journalistic, creative and programming documents would not cause injury to the broadcaster’s “independence” – itself a vague term vulnerable to subjective interpretations.
CJFE argues that C-461 would effectively undo the decision of the Federal Court of Appeal about the absolute right of the CBC, consistent with Supreme Court of Canada decisions, to protect its journalistic sources. “In such a situation, what whistleblower would approach a CBC reporter? How could CBC journalists in good faith promise to protect their sources?” the CJFE position paper asks.
CJFE also argues that the bill is unnecessary. The CBC was recently awarded an “A” grade by the Information Commissioner for its performance on answering access requests. And contrary to the claims of the bill’s supporters, there is no longer a lack of clarity about the existing section of the access law concerning the CBC. That section (68.1) was clarified by the Federal Court of Appeal in late 2011 and since then appears to be working without problems and to the satisfaction of both the CBC and the Information Commissioner.
“By contrast, the wording of C-461’s proposed exemption is no clearer on its face than section 68.1, and if passed would wipe out the benefit of judges’ extensive deliberations on the existing law,” CJFE asserts.
CJFE monitors, defends and reports on free expression and access to information in Canada and abroad. Rooted in the field of journalism, we promote a free media as essential to a fair and open society. CJFE boldly champions the free expression rights of all people, and encourages and supports individuals and groups in the protection of their own and others’ free expression rights. Website: www.cjfe.org