2017 Freedom of Expression Awards by Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship https://flic.kr/p/Uvmaie (CC BY-SA 2.0)

2017 Freedom of Expression Awards by Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship https://flic.kr/p/Uvmaie (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Spiking Op-Eds: How the Government’s Online News Act is Already Leading to Media Self-Censorship

Last week, Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez introduced Bill C-18, the Online News Act, a bill that adopts an extreme approach to compensation by requiring payments for merely facilitating access to news in any way and in any amount. As a result, the Canadian government envisions mandated payments not only for copying or reproducing the news or for directly linking to news articles, but also for general links to news sites. But the concerns with Bill C-18 do not end there. The bill threatens press independence in two important respects.

First, the bill increases dependence on the Internet companies, both in terms of reliance on the new revenues and by virtue of the fact that the Internet companies – not Canadian media – effectively dictate how the new revenues will be spent. This is the inevitable result of a system in which the Internet companies must prove to the CRTC that their deals with Canadian media will allocate a significant portion of the compensation to support local production of news content.

Second, press independence is threatened by the self-censorship that Canadian media companies supportive of the bill are likely to pursue. I raised this concern last week, noting:

I know of cases where opinion pieces have been spiked by mainstream media outlets because they criticized the previous Heritage Minister at a time when he was being actively lobbied on a potential media bill. Those decisions come on top of blank front pages and advertorials designed to curry support for the measures. The blurring of editorial and financial may be a fact of life, but it ultimately diminishes the credibility of the media.

This comment was based on first-hand experience. In 2021, I pitched an opinion piece on then Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault to one of Canada’s leading media outlets. The opinions editor liked the idea and worked with me over several drafts to finalize the piece. I was told it was ready for publication and then I waited. And waited. And was then told the piece was spiked by upper management given the subject matter and the campaign for legislative support from Canadian Heritage.

It should therefore come as little surprise that the same issue has already arisen with respect to Bill C-18. News coverage has appropriately provided balanced reporting, but masthead editorials and opinion pieces drive in a single direction with no shortage of supportive op-eds: the National Post, Toronto Star, Winnipeg Free Press, and Toronto Sun among them. In fact, I’ve been advised that further commissioned opinion pieces are on the way. Yet Carleton professor Dwayne Winseck reports that he had an approved piece that raised criticisms of the bill spiked by the National Post (the Toronto Star spiked an opinion piece of his last year on similar grounds).

To be clear, no one is entitled to space for an op-ed and there are multiple ways for people to make their voices heard. However, Minister Rodriguez has emphasized that his bill is designed to support an independent press free from government interference or pressure. Pressure can come in many ways and the pressure to support the Minister and the government on Bill C-18 is palpable.

Wikipedia describes censorship as:

Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information. This may be done on the basis that such material is considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or “inconvenient”. Censorship can be conducted by governments, private institutions and other controlling bodies.

The term “censorship” is often thrown around too easily, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that that is precisely what is occurring here: the suppression of speech, public communication or other information considered inconvenient by a private institution. It is a direct result of Bill C-18, which has resulted in cheerleading from corporate media owners, suppression of critical views within the mainstream media, and risks to the fabric of the Internet by mandating payments for links.

5 Comments

  1. This is why it is critical that Internet media should be supported by users. I’ve lost count how many times critically important topics are warped in traditional media outlets – often to support of corporate interests.

    Throughout the 2000’s, many media outlets had no problem simply republishing press releases from the RIAA without any critical analysis – this during the height of the copyright debates. The media provided decidedly one-sided reporting, though it was much more plausible that it was out of ignorance, rather than intentional malice. This gave rise to sites I used to write for (now all gone) which provided counterpoints and corrections to the various stories floating around in mainstream press and broadcasts.

    It took years of work from many highly skilled writers (myself included) to turn the tide around and continuously educate people that the major corporate interests aren’t the be-all end-all source for knowing about copyright and the impacts file-sharing has on the various businesses. The media eventually came around (to varying degrees) and eventually figured out that things like “one download means one lost sale” isn’t exactly something to be believed.

    Fast forward a decade+ later and we are seeing a repeat of one-sided reporting on a critical issue facing the Internet in Canada. The key difference here is that it is not out of ignorance, but out of pure greed to push a corporate narrative at the expense of everyday Canadian’s. Unlike the copyright debates of old, there is no “educating” the media or turning the tide around to have more balanced reporting. They are financially motivated to mislead the public for their own financial interests at the expense of everyone else involved. They have taken what they learned from the political realm and applied it to the link tax debate and will continue, shoulder to the wheel, to the very end, to parade around debunked talking points as facts. Any point being made to the contrary of Bill C-18 is seen as a threat that must be extinguished wherever possible.

    We are truly in uncharted territory here and the political landscape is doing us no favours (low threat of an election, causing these bills to simply die on the orderpaper which saved us from numerous bad copyright reform bills in the past). I know I’m only one person operating one site, but I’ll be doing what I can to provide the real story on my end of things. As we get closer to the passage of Bill C-18, I suspect that the media will be increasingly motivated to play dirty and play fast and loose with the facts.

    I also think we have to remember that we are all playing on the same side on this one. None of us want to see the Liberals war on the Internet succeed. The less damage they can inflict on the open Internet, the better.

  2. The Press loves to talk about its ethics and integrity, and yet, here it is spreading misinformation – namely that its problems have been caused by Facebook and Google.

    The Press’s hypocrisy about his issue is staggering. Facebook and Google are following the same model that newspapers have used for centuries – generate advertising revenue by providing content about others. Newspapers don’t pay the NHL for the “privilege” of reporting its standing; they don’t pay movie theatres for providing movie listings; and, they don’t pay victims of crime for reporting their stories. And yet they want Google and Facebook to pay them because Google and Facebook might generate some ad revenue from some link to the same content in their newspaper.

    The Press claims that they have earned the trust of readers because they vigorously guard their independence from those they report on. Bill C 18 shatters this claim – the press is selling its independence to the Federal Government. They might as well report directly to the PM’s office.

  3. Pingback: Letter from the editor: Rebutting critics of the Online News Act - The London Free Press - Blogs

  4. Pingback: Peter Menzies: Canada's proposed speech and media bills are a buffet of bad ideas - The Hub

  5. Pingback: Peter Menzies: Canada’s proposed speech and media bills are a buffet of bad ideas – Indie Media

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