2019: The Fight for Press Freedom

A New Year’s message from CWA Canada President Martin O’Hanlon

Dear fellow CWA Canada members,

I hope you had a relaxing holiday season, and a big thank you to everyone who has helped us fight the good fight for quality jobs and quality journalism, whether as a union leader or activist, or just doing something for the cause.

While it has been yet another challenging year, there is good news for our union. Despite our small size and the threats facing the media industry, CWA Canada is a leader in progressive, innovative labour projects. Our associate membership program for students has been a huge success, and we are breaking new ground with our digital, freelance and Factual TV organizing. For a small union, we punch way above our weight.

We begin the new year with the hope that 2019 will be a turning point on two fronts: the troubled media industry and freedom of the press.

Last month, I spoke to a Senate committee on behalf of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) about the growing threat to press freedom around the world.

It’s hard to believe that in 2019, we’re having to fight harder for such a fundamental and vital right.

We’ve long watched governments, from Saudi Arabia to Russia to Cuba, restricting what journalists can report. But now, many serial offenders like China are cracking down even harder, using technology to quash dissent and to block the sharing of information on social media.

Even more troubling, we’ve seen the rise of demagogues and ultra-conservative parties in formerly progressive countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and the Philippines, who are openly hostile to the media. Turkey is now the world’s leading jailer of journalists with hundreds being held on trumped-up charges – and many given long jail sentences.

And then there’s the United States, where the ugliness of Trump and his Republican enablers are a threat to both freedom of the press and democracy.

Let’s be clear: Journalism is a pillar of democracy and attacks on the media are attacks on our democratic systems.

It is vital that progressive, moderate, responsible countries like Canada speak out publicly whenever freedom of the press is under attack, that we pressure other countries diplomatically to do better, and that we punish the worst offenders, through economic sanctions if necessary.

Restricting journalists’ rights is one thing, but in many countries, the situation is even more dire.

At least 94 media workers were killed in 2018, according to the IFJ, while hundreds more are in prison, and dozens are being held hostage.

And there are growing threats to digital safety with cyber-attacks, hacking, and online harassment – especially of women journalists – all creating a safety crisis for news professionals.

A growing frustration with a lack of action and often a lack of will to tackle the crisis of impunity, has driven the IFJ to call for an international Convention on the Safety of Journalists and Media Professionals, which we have asked the federal government to support.

Here in Canada, the situation is more benign but still worrying.

Last year, Radio-Canada reporter Antoine Trépanier was arrested by Gatineau police simply for doing his job and asking questions – based on a frivolous harassment complaint by someone who didn’t like what he was reporting. Also this year, a judge ordered Radio-Canada journalist Marie-Maude Denis to reveal her source in a corruption trial, a case that is now going to the Supreme Court.

And of course, the Supreme Court ruled just last month that VICE Media reporter Ben Makuch must hand over material he gathered about an accused ISIS fighter. CWA Canada was an intervener in that case.

Again, let’s be clear: The media is not, nor should it ever be, an arm of the state. As journalists, we must fight any attempt by anyone, especially authorities, to interfere with freedom of the press.

As a result, we will be pushing the federal government to bolster the Journalistic Source Protection Act to better protect journalists’ sources.

Turning to the state of the media industry, in November the government announced $595 million in tax help for the media industry and confirmed that media non-profits will be eligible for charitable donations.

That’s great, but we have to make sure that none of the money goes to line the pockets of owners, vulture funds, hedge funds, or to executives. It is disgraceful that Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey’s compensation soared to $5 million last year from $1.2 million even as the company struggled and he demanded concessions from staff on pensions and health benefits. Shameless.

We will continue to push the government to break up the Postmedia monopoly and toughen up Competition Bureau rules to block leveraged purchases of important companies, especially in the media.

We believe this is vital for preserving quality jobs and quality journalism by encouraging local, non-profit ownership of newspapers rather than the destructive, predatory hedge-fund disaster that is Postmedia.

I will wrap up with a positive note from south of the border where the NewsGuild-CWA, our sister American union, has seen an explosion of organizing in the last couple of years, bringing in over 1,000 new members at papers like the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune. This is an exciting time in the U.S. as media workers finally stand up for themselves and for journalism. And you can expect to see more of the same in the year ahead.

I urge all of you to join in the fight for quality jobs, quality journalism and press freedom by getting active with the union in 2019.

Please “Like” our CWA Canada Facebook page, follow us on Twitter (@cwacanada1), and  subscribe to our eNewsletter “CWeh! Canada.”

All the best in 2019!

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