Threats to freedom of expression in Canada

Community News & Features Aug 24, 2017 at 6:14 pm
Tom Henheffer, CJFE Executive Director   (Photo: HG)

Tom Henheffer, CJFE Executive Director
(Photo: HG)

CJFE Executive Director Tom Henheffer:

By Mila Astorga-Garcia

TORONTO – The greatest threat to free expression in Canada is the culture war due to the rise of fascism, says Tom Henheffer, Executive Director of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. This is because fascism ties up with fake news, which has negatively impacted on the lives of the marginalized sectors of the community

Speaking before journalists, writers and members of the Filipino community, at a forum held at University of Toronto on July 31, Henheffer says:

“I would say that the biggest threat to free expression is “very much the culture of war going on in this country, in the US and in other parts of the world…the rise of fascism in many ways; it ties in very much to fake news.”
This is a very different threat from before, Heneheffer elaborates. Previously the biggest threat was “government interference” to free expression in the form of Bill 51 which made it “difficult for reporters to do their jobs …as the tools given to intelligence agencies could be used to target people for political reasons rather than legal reasons.” Thus it became a violation of the charter, he asserts. CJFE, he adds, was the organization that brought the original charter challenge against Bill C-51, as its provisions tended to curtail the ability of journalists to perform their jobs without fear of retaliation.

Now, culture war is the biggest threat that manifests in diverse ways that threaten the safety not only of journalists but the usual target groups of hateful attacks – Muslims, Black, LGBT community and other marginalized sectors, who usually do not have a voice or resources to counter such attacks.

When journalists or defenders of free expression even just simply intervene in this culture war, they too become the objects of hate, he says. Henheffer cited an example of what he experienced that day just before his U of T talk:

He relates that he was monitoring Twitter and there was this argument going between two Canadians over what an American comedian with a huge following had said on TV: that if he had slept with a trans woman and found out he was trans, he would kill him. One Canadian says ‘This is crazy how can this happen? This is terrible. He should apologize” This other came out and said “These are just words. Why apologize? He has a right to say this.”

In the US, what he said is protected; in Canada it would be hate speech; you can be prosecuted. In the US, you have to incite violence to be prosecuted. In Canada you only have to incite hatred and you could be prosecuted, Henheffer says.
Henheffer recalls at some point he intervened in the conversation and said to this Canadian defending the source of the offending statement:

“If he has the right to say these things, he has no protection from criticism. Free expression is not protection from criticism.”

Henheffer says he was right away spewed with angry comments for intervening, including attacks on the Canadian health system, and in about 5 minutes, there were already about some150 twits hurled at him from the supporters of the person.

“An absolute nightmare situation because these are people who are coopting the expression movement, he says of that experience.

He also laments that free expression has been tainted, and has been connected with white supremacy.

He says there are hatemongers or people who are fighting an imaginary battle against an imaginary villain creating an imaginary enemy and generating a massive movement of people, creating divisions, creating hatred.

He cites that hate crimes against Muslims in Canadahas rose to 253% from 2011 to 2015, and hate crime in general went up by 60% since 2015, and research has linked that phenomenon directly to the hate rhetoric in the last election.

Henheffer says that the present cooptation of the free expression movement has led his organization to realize times have changed and they had to take a new step. In the past, he reveals, “we were pretty much free speech absolutists,” that they defended some people they should not have had as they fought against hate legislation in Canada “because we believed in the free market place of ideas. What I realized from engaging with communities – Muslims, Black, Chinese, gay – the free market place of ideas when you are a group that has been marginalized by white supremacy in a country like Canada does not work.”

“When someone says something and that generates a following and that generates aggression and all of a sudden it creates a hate crime,” then that becomes a problem. Usually it is the marginalized sector, those whose voices are not heard, who are the victims of this.

P6_DSC0067However, Henheffer says when the perpetrators of hateful speech are criticized, they claim to be the victims because they believe in this country they can say the most hateful speech that they can. It is because they fail to see through the lenses of people who have been oppressed, and the result of their actions victimizes people and destroys the social fabric (of communities).

He says free expression has been misrepresented by those groups who use free speech for their racism. “Free speech equals racism, and we disagree with that…and we’ve been attacked by different groups because of that,” he reveals. He cites one of his staff being assaulted in a rally by a white supremacist and that was because we have spoken out against people who say free speech is anti-racism.”

Those who misrepresent free expression say all kinds of speech must be allowed even if it engenders hate and leads to violent attacks against people. Free speech is coopted when it is used to red tag people. It’s like free expression being taken away.

Just like in the Philippines, when free expression is taken away by an authoritarian government, when it is coopted, it results in people being jailed and killed and murdered, Henheffer, a former journalist with Maclean Magazine says. “We have to start caring about that happening in Canada, with authoritarian intelligence agencies like the CSIS…they have widespread racism in that organization…and the government has given them unlimited spying power.

“The movement is being distracted; now free expression is being coopted by people who believe they should be allowed free speech but they are hate mongers who pretend to be the victims to generate outrage and generate money out of being so.” Henheffer cites one of them is generating as much as $50,000 a month in crowd funding, which is a lot compared to what CJFE’s crowd funding a $4,000 a month in crowd funding. And yet, he says, it is his organization that works hard to impact policy for the cause of free expression, while the other just twits away his vitriol and toxic attacks.

“We have to stand up against people who say that for free speech to exist, anybody can say hate speech,” Henheffer says.

The culture war is distracting the organization from the real fight, which is protecting journalists from doing their job, he emphasizes.

In the last year, five jourmalists in Canada have either been arrested for doing their jobs or facing jail time, says Heneheffer. A national security reporter who did an interview with an alleged suspected ISIS military, released the full text of the interview and published it three years ago was being asked to produce his notes to the RCMP. Standing on principle for he considered the demand for his notes a massive violation of the free press, he was prosecuted. CJFE is now taking the case to the Supreme Court. It is fighting for this case so as not to establish a precedent of this kind of violation of free press in this country.

Another case is that of an independent journalist from Montreal specializing in writing about protest movements. When immigration activists occupied a government building in Montreal for 30 minutes, the journalist went inside the building to film the protest then left when the protesters were asked to leave. Shortly after leaving, while standing on the street, police arrested him and charged him with unlawful confinement — essentially kidnapping — facing five years in prison. CJFE intervened and had the case dropped after a year and a half long legal battle.

Still another case involves two journalists from Hamilton covering a car crash. The two reporters were far behind the yellow tape, not interfering, but the police said the two were trying to exploit the victims, while in reality they were just doing their job of reporting on what had happened. The two were assaulted, arrested, charged with obstructing justice and resisting arrest; the case is still going on.

The fifth case is a that of a reporter in Newfoundland covering a protest by Indigenous Peoples against a hydro-electric dam that they believed was producing metal mercury as a by-product and which they feared was poisoning their water.

The protesters were on the road to Labrador in an isolated area, and the site of the dam was 7 km from the road in crown land, technically, public land but run by a private corporation. Any journalist would know that if the protesters were Indigenous People, it would be important to have big cameras cover the event, as based on past experiences, protesters were attacked. The reporter went with the protesters at the beginning and stayed with them for three days, and because of that a warrant of arrest was filed against him and he was charged with criminal trespassing, mischief, facing five years in prison. “We’re intervening in his case. There needs to be protection for public interest reporting when you are covering protest,” Henheffer says.

Tom Henheffer  (Photos: HG)

Tom Henheffer (Photos: HG)

Henheffer also criticized the access to information system in place which he describes as an “absolute joke.” Although he says we pay only five dollars to have access to any government document, there is a culture in the civil service system that prevents information from of getting out easily so they hire lawyers at $500 an hour on how to give as little information as possible.

He cites that if you were to request for an information on an Excel spreadsheet, instead of just having it electronically provided to you which may take just 10 minutes of a clerk’s time, the spread sheet is snail mailed in boxes, wasting toner ink and paper, and shipping costs. Also it becomes difficult to use the information in boxes of paper rather than a workable electronic file.

One problem is the absence of a strong independent media in the country, but which we do not have right now, he says. “We don’t, not anymore…every newsroom across the country is losing staff.” Macleans had 60 people in the newsroom in 2011; now there are 15 people in 2017”, he says.

Also, he cites that the concentration of ownership is the worst in the world in terms of any western democracy. In Canada, 75% of media properties are owned by three companies, meaning three executives control almost all the media.

There is an independent media starting to spring up, he notes. “Canada was once a rich jungle of forest media but it burned into the ground, however, there is a lot of fertile soil… (creating the) right opportunity for small new media outlets to grow, he says. However, new media is not getting the support it needs. Startups spring up but do not last long because of limited capital. Foundations that exist are not allowed to put money in journalism.

So we need systems in place to create a program where we can support and fund small media startups around the country. We are looking all over the world for it but it is difficult.

“These are all the issues we should fight about but the free expression movement is stuck in a quagmire of racists and bigots who are pretending to be persecuted. They have co-opted the free expression movement and made it extremely difficult for us to do our job. And it is a natural disaster,” he says.

Henheffer observes that there has been a democratization of all the platforms – internet and social media.This, he says, has changed the narrative and has taken away power from the tradtional media. Technology is neutral and is also being used by exptreme right but they no longer control the narrative as much as they want to, he avers. “What we see is because society is changing – becoming more liberal – it freaks out people uncomfortable to those ideas. So they culturally appropriate – they throw a tantrum… unfortunately we become polarized,” he says.

In terms of aternative media, there’s a huge amount of alternative media; there is the ethnic press but their audience is quite segregated, Henheffer says, and the extreme right groups tend to take in the enemy that is fragmented.
On being a journalist and activist : “Journalists should advocate for the truth and those whose voices are not heard,” he concludes.