Sorry, American journalists: Canada is no press freedom paradise
© Greg Nash
Donald Trump’s shocking victory resulted in a stampede of traffic to Canada’s immigration website, famously causing it to crash. Given the antipathy that Trump directed toward the media, would we be surprised if, among this nervous bunch seeking an escape, a few journalists cast a longing eye northwards?

Indeed, there may be no group more derided by Trump, and none more vigorously despised by his supporters, than journalists. A representative moment came midway through the campaign, when Trump declared that, "I'm not running against crooked Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSuper PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump I voted for Trump in 2020 — he proved to be the ultimate RINO in 2021 Neera Tanden tapped as White House staff secretary MORE. I'm running against the crooked media."


Meanwhile, judging by the adoring coverage the glittering Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, receives, he might have no greater constituency than among journalists. In contrast to Trump’s antagonism towards the press, Trudeau has vocally advocated for a “free media.” He won praise during the last Canadian election campaign for defending a reporter from a heckling crowd of his own supporters, chiding them with the declaration that, “we respect journalists in this country.”

Contemplating the various dire warnings from press freedom groups and vengeful attacks from the President TrumpDonald TrumpSix big off-year elections you might be missing Twitter suspends GOP Rep. Banks for misgendering trans health official Meghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' MORE, it seems almost reasonable for members of the American media to see a haven in Canada for the practice of unfettered, free journalism.

This is, however, a dangerous illusion. Despite the differences between Canada’s prime minister and the President Trump, press freedom in Canada faces threats from the state that are every bit as severe as those in the United States. The year and a half since Trudeau’s election has seen a cascading series of scandals and press freedom violations which undermine Canada’s claim to respect media rights. Wavering American journalists, in other words, should hold off on booking their tickets.                                                                                             

In April 2016, an Ontario judge ordered VICE News reporter Ben Makuch to hand over all communications between himself and a source to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, setting a dangerous precedent that could compromise journalistic independence and the protection of sources. 

In September, Journal de Montréal's headquarters were searched and journalist Michaël Nguyen's computer was seized after Quebec's judicial counsel claimed that information he published was obtained illegally from their website. This supposed breach of their online security was later debunked when a journalist from La Presse reported that he had accessed the same documents without ever encountering any security measures.

In October, Justin Brake, journalist and editor of The Independent learned that he faced possible trespassing charges for his coverage of protests against the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador, part of a disturbing pattern of legal intimidation against journalists and media workers covering controversies over resource development projects and indigenous-led protests.

In November, La Presse's Patrick Lagacé revealed that he has been the subject of Montréal city police surveillance since the beginning of 2016. Days after his revelation, at least 6 other journalists learned that they had been the subject of Quebec provincial police surveillance in 2013. None of these journalists were suspected of crimes; they were being spied on to discover their confidential sources. This direct attack on the protection of sources - one of the foundational principles of press freedom - caused an uproar in Quebec, and the government has launched a wide-ranging public inquiry into the affair, due to report in early 2018.

These incidents add up to what can only be described as a crisis for press freedom in Canada. Canada recently dropped ten places in the 2016 Reporter Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, thanks to what the organization called a “dark age for journalism” under the previous federal government.

Based on current trends, and without decisive action to ensure respect for journalists' independence, the confidentiality of their sources, and their ability to freely do their job, the “dark age” looks set to continue.

Journalists around the world are facing unprecedented threats from authoritarian governments, terrorist groups, and oppressive laws. Canada can be a global leader in pushing back on these trends. Until it does, American journalists seeking a press freedom paradise should look elsewhere.

Delphine Halgand is North America director for Reporters Without Borders. Tom Henheffer is executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.