Thursday, February 12, 2009

A national press council?

I finally received my copy of the National Post this morning and read the following on the editorial page:

As if Barbara Hall's own crude, broadsword agency were not destructive enough of free speech rights, now the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) wants a national press council to further chill free expression in the media. And she is not looking just to curtail newspapers, talk radio and television news. Ms. Hall wants any new press council to have jurisdiction over Internet sites and blogs, too. (click here to read the rest). 

I decided to take a look at the report itself.  It truly is a masterpiece of double-speak.  Claiming to want to avoid censorship, it also recommends the establish of a national press council that would "would help bring consistency across jurisdictions." This council, the OHCR report to the Canadian Human Rights Commission says, would have "compulsory membership and powers to determine breach of professional standards and order publication of press council decisions."  In other words, it might not be able to tell you what to say, but it could require to you to publish any decisions that the council might make in response to complaints.  Does this remind you at all of what some Muslim students tried to force Macleans to do but were unable to do?  Obviously Ms, Hall is trying to find a new way to force people to print things that they do not want to.  Doesn't the right to freedom of expression also give you the right NOT to say or print something?

The report opens with the assertion "that freedom of expression must not be interfered with except for expression that incites violence against identifiable groups." But a few pages later, it backtracks by saying that "Canada has a duty under its international obligations to prohibit racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement, to not just violence, but also to discrimination, and hostility." How can you have it both ways?  I certainly am not suggesting that promotion of hatred is a good thing, but who is decide what it is and when the line has been crossed?  If I say that I hate this idea of a national press council, am I promoting hatred against members of the OHRC who proposed it?  If I say that I hate how Muslim converts are mistreated in Islamic countries, am I inciting hatred against Muslims?  You may rightfully say that these examples are ridiculous.  But who is to say for sure?

Ms. Hall and her ilk suffered some significant setbacks in recent months when human rights commissions slapped down several complaints involving criticism of Islam by members of the media.  This report, it seems to me, is just another, more subtle, attempt to control freedom of expression in Canada, while using many of the right words to make it sound that they are actually defending it.  It comes across as a paean of reasonableness.  But there are teeth there, carefully hidden behind the smiling lips. 

Let's just hope that this is the last we ever hear of this proposed council.  I am not hopeful, though. These things do have a way of filtering back, especially as calls for anti-defamation legislation is being urged at the United Nations.  While non-binding, such votes do tend to have an influence on legislation in member countries, especially democratic ones. We need to stay diligent.

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