Journalists in Canada do not face the sorts of threats – sometimes life-endangering ones – that colleagues in many other countries do. But other factors impinge on the right of Canadians to diverse and thorough reporting of contentious issues, says an academic on the subject.
Robert Hackett, professor emeritus of communication at Simon Fraser University, spoke on the civil courage of journalists as part of the annual Raoul Wallenberg Day in Vancouver. The virtual commemoration, sponsored by the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society Jan. 17, featured a number of recorded events, including the screening of two films.
In recent decades, there has been a return to “partisan media,” said Hackett.
“Media, going back a couple of hundred years, were initially partisan media, reflecting the viewpoint of particular factions or parties,” he said. “We see that returning with a vengeance since the 1980s, with Fox News and so on.”
The internet has lowered attention spans and the “growing entertainment orientation” of the news media has changed the way reporting is done. Contradictory forces have upset the journalism sector in recent decades, he said. On the one hand, concentration and monopoly have placed control of “legacy media” – daily news, for instance – in fewer and fewer hands, reflecting a narrowing of perspectives. On the other hand, digital media and journalism startups have led to a fragmentation of public attention.
As the revenue structures of journalism have become strained due to competition for advertising avenues, resources for newsroom staff have declined, with commensurate impacts on the quality of reporting. Journalists who are expected to pump out several stories a day are unable to do the sort of investigative work common a generation or two ago and so rely on media releases. General reporters have replaced beat reporters with deep contacts and extensive background knowledge in an area of expertise. These structural changes have been accompanied by growing cultural skepticism toward expertise and even the definition of truth, said Hackett.
“It’s a different cognitive world,” he said. “We no longer seem to even have a shared reality.”
Some of Hackett’s recent research, in conjunction with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, has focused on fossil fuel industries and their influence on Canada’s press. He sees Canada’s largest print media company, Postmedia, as a booster of fossil fuels.
While Canadian journalists are fortunate not to face some of the life-threatening risks of reporters in many other places, there remain serious challenges to the ideal of a free media.
“There is still a certain degree of legal harassment and risk, especially for freelancers who don’t have a big organization behind them,” said Hackett. “The cost of a lawsuit for defamation, even if it’s a spurious lawsuit, is prohibitive. It’s intimidating. I know for a fact that freelancers have said they aren’t proceeding with stories because of fears of being sued.”
In addition, he added: “We don’t have effective shield or whistleblower laws, by and large, that would allow journalists to protect their sources.”
The online event, marking the 16th annual commemoration of Raoul Wallenberg Day in Vancouver, also featured two documentaries.
A Dark Place was produced by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Representative on Freedom of the Media. It follows female journalists around the world and the threats they receive online in reaction to their reporting on contentious stories. Threats of rape and murder, as well as other forms of intimidation, are almost ubiquitous. One study said that 60% of female journalists have experienced some form of online harassment or threats, according to the film. A panel discussion featured the film’s director, Javier Luque, and Arzu Geybulla, an Azerbaijani journalist who endured harrowing harassment and accusations of being a “traitor” for coverage of conflicts in the Caucasus.
The other documentary, Mohamed Fahmy: Half Free, by filmmaker David Paperny, follows Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who was jailed in Egypt for his reporting on the Arab Spring uprising in Cairo. Fahmy’s experience is one of many that journalists face daily in conflict zones and under repressive regimes, risking their freedom and their lives to report on events. Fahmy spent 438 days in an Egyptian prison before being pardoned by the country’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Fahmy is now an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia.
Alan Le Fevre, a director of the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society, welcomed participants to the annual event, which highlights the Second World War heroism of Raoul Wallenberg and Chiune Sugihara.
Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat in Hungary, issued “protective passports” that identified bearers as Swedish subjects awaiting repatriation, thereby preventing their deportation from Hungary to death camps in Poland. Wallenberg disappeared in 1945 after the Soviets invaded Hungary. In 1957, the Soviet Union released a statement dated 1947, saying that Wallenberg had died of natural causes that year. Reports that Wallenberg was seen alive after 1947 have added to confusion and controversy around his fate.
Sugihara was vice-consul of the Imperial Japanese legation in Lithuania. At risk to his career and his life, Sugihara issued thousands of transit visas permitting Jews to travel through the Soviet Union to Japan and across the Pacific. Ostensibly, because a destination was required for a transit visa, the holders were destined for Curaçao. Many of those who escaped ended up on the West Coast of North America and there are several Vancouver families who owe their lives to “Sugihara visas.”