Tony Burman, formerly of Al Jazeera, Toronto Star editor-in-chief Michael Cooke, and Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail columnist, were three of the many who spoke at a Ryerson University conference honouring the 30th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on Thursday.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms was signed in to law thirty years ago, giving Canadians scores of civil and political rights many now take for granted. It also made press freedom a fundamental right. A right, according to Marlys Edwardh, a veteran civil rights lawyer, that gives rise to the other freedoms.
“An election would mean nothing if the votes were rigged and the press wasn’t able to report on it,” she said to a standing-room-only audience at Ryerson University yesterday.
If she could have it her way, said Edwardh, she would like to rewrite some of the laws herself, referencing the labyrinthine Canadian justice system that has known to sometimes swallow people up. One such case was her client, Maher Arar, a Syrian-Canadian who was detained in a Syrian prison for nearly a year by U.S. officials who wrongfully suspected him of being a member of Al Qaeda. A Canadian government commission of inquiry has since righted this wrong, though Arar and his family continue to remain on the U.S. no fly list.
Sharing the panel was Michelle Shephard, Toronto Star’s national security correspondent, whose terrorism beat had taken her to all corners of the world in the decade following 9/11. “To the point where I now have a Starbucks card from Guantanamo,” she quipped.
In describing her work, Shephard said that when she is not making “asses clinch in Ottawa,” she is hanging out with “spies and terrorists,” both essential sources for her research.
For Shephard, covering terrorism has meant writing about both the abuse of power and the absence there of. A critical part of her job is weighing the public’s right to know against threats to national security. She used the example of the 2006 Ontario terrorism case, or the Toronto 18, which was a “big get” for the Toronto Star, but a scoop she did not rush to print so as to ensure lives would not be at risk. This calculus has been getting tough lately, Shephard said, as Ottawa takes a harder than ever line towards what it considers a security threat.
In her experience, said Shephard, “Canada was one of two most hardest places to report from, and eventually I gave up.” She added that the runner up was Guantanamo Bay.
Shephard’s portrayal of press freedom in Canada is far cry from the one that Margaret Wente describes: an “envy of the world.” As far as Wente is concerned, the problem is not with the government but with the journalists who self-censor.
And then there is Jagdish Grewal of Canadian Punjabi Post who observed that, “in ethnic media, there is no such thing as freedom.”