By: KIRSTEN FENN & KYLIE KENDALL
The Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom hosted their annual luncheon on Thursday, May 3 at the National Arts Centre in honour of World Press Freedom Day. The event featured awards and a panel of distinguished guest speakers, including Carleton University’s own Kathryn O’Hara and Jeff Sallot, who debated over the question of whether free expression is “under siege” in Canada.
The 14th CCWP Freedom Award was presented to the Canadian Science Writers Association and the Association des communicateurs scientifique, while the first place prize for the 12th International Editorial Cartoon Competition honoured Liz França of Brazil.
During the question period of the panel discussion, one audience member called into question the Canadian government’s degree of transparency, emphasizing an arguably intentional lack of efficiency in communications with the public.
“We, the public, do not get to ask questions of the people we have elected,” she said.
Yaroslav Baran, a panel member and former director of communications in the Harper leadership campaign, argued that restrictions on government-press communications are necessary and do not inhibit freedom of expression. He cited new and upcoming means of communication that are, in many ways, increasing freedom of expression.
“Social media has also had a tremendous and abrupt liberalizing effect in recent years,” Baran said.
“If you don’t want to wait for a press secretary to get back to you, you can chat with Tony Clement on twitter and he’ll engage you, believe me,” he said.
O’Hara and Sallot, however, argued that while press freedom may not yet be “under seige,” it is time to reevaluate the public policy surrounding access to information. A central focus of discussion was science journalism and journalists’ access to scientists themselves, something upon which the Harper government has placed restrictions.
“What is so difficult about allowing a science journalist, or any journalist for that matter, to talk to a scientist?” O’Hara asked. “Where is the disconnect?”
Sallot said that the Harper government’s restrictions on whom the press can speak with are “frightening the hell out of people.”
Although it was highlighted that hundreds of journalists are jailed and killed each year in other nations around the globe, O’Hara emphasized the need to stay engaged in discussion around press freedom in Canada.
She and many of the journalists present felt strongly that Canada should strive to be set a global standard for press freedom, rather than settle for adequacy.
The day emphasized the need for a review of the Harper government’s public policy in terms of communication and journalism.
Although press freedom may seem like a given here in Canada, the panel of speakers and audience of passionate journalists proved that it remains an obstacle in the way of democracy for Canadian journalism and society.