Introducing the Canada Press Freedom Project
The Canada Press Freedom Project, an initiative of J-Source, brings together organizations across disciplines and the country to provide systematic documentation of press freedom violations and tools and resources to help people understand and navigate incursions on their rights and threats to the public record.
Canada has historically enjoyed international standing for press freedom conditions, that while respected, often glosses over many concerning issues. Compared to press freedom conditions in many parts of the world, journalists in Canada tend to experience less brutal interventions as they work. Yet, their capacity to report on key current events and their circumstances are frequently imperiled by a variety of incursions. The rights of media workers and the right of the public to know has suffered under an insidious increase in factors restricting journalistic work and the public record.
Slow adaptation to an online information sphere has allowed digital violence to fester, extremism to entrench and disinformation to thrive. Campaigns designed to instill hostility against journalism organizations and media workers have eroded public trust and made journalistic work less safe. Legal harassment continues to be wielded as a tool to silence and intimidate, while the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a pre-existing breakdown in access to information and the economic crisis in journalism. Furthermore, the chronic lack of representation of Canada’s diversity in media, and the editorial and labour conditions that result, both impinge on the first drafts of history.
Over the past decade, landmark legal cases affecting media freedoms have been decided, from those guaranteeing journalists’ right to access and cover sites of land defense to those, contrarily, enabling law enforcement to intercept source communications. Police forces have conducted surveillance of media workers and restricted their ability to cover stories in the public interest.
As smaller digital startups have emerged to fill critical news needs and serve different audiences, they and a growing workforce of freelancers increasingly face challenges to media rights, with few of the resources of traditional news organizations.
Stakeholders in Canada, from media workers to researchers, the public to policymakers and more, are becoming increasingly aware of the fragile state of media freedoms and attuned to the need for ongoing vigilance.
The CPFP will quantify violations of press freedom across 12 categories, allowing journalists, researchers, students, lawyers, advocacy groups and professional associations and the public to interact with data on press freedom year after year.
Inspired by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which has documented press freedom violations in the United States since 2017, the CPFP records press freedom incidents in Canada and those involving Canada-based journalists working outside the country, with the goal of increasing public understanding of the ongoing state of media freedoms.
What we track
CPFP’s editorial team monitors potential incidents and updates from news reports, other publicly available sources, our network of partners, and tips.
Anyone can submit potential incidents for review and verification.
The site quantitatively tracks press freedom violations affecting media workers in Canada, those based in Canada but working internationally or those based internationally working for a Canadian media organization occurring since Jan. 1, 2021.
The CPFP publishes incident reports under the following categories:
- Arrests and criminal charges – Incidents in which media workers are arrested and taken into custody and/or have criminal charges laid against them while on the job or as related to their work.
- Equipment search or seizure – Incidents in which a media worker’s equipment is either searched or seized.
- Equipment damage – Incidents in which a media worker’s equipment is damaged by an assailant in the course of their work, or any incident in which their personal property is damaged in a targeted attack.
- Subpoena/legal order – Incidents where media workers are compelled to produce source materials to a government agency or are required — by subpoena or legal order — to testify in court.
- Chilling statement – Incidents in which the impact created by a statement may be perceived to or have the potential to thwart, derail or prevent a media worker or organization from continuing to pursue their work. Most frequently, tracked threats will have been made by politicians or public figures and will include known instances of libel chill and strategic lawsuits against public participation.
- Denial of access – Incidents where media workers are denied access to events that are typically open to the press, such as public meetings, demonstrations, government media availability or court proceedings and where denial of access limits coverage of events in the public interest. These could be targeted at individuals or be shifts in policy that impact journalists’ collective right of access. Denial of access also includes situations where a local, provincial or federal government body prevents access to a contested site where a protest or public activity is underway, or if certain media workers are excluded on the basis of their affiliation to a media organization, or lack thereof, or cases where insufficient reasoning is provided for denial of access.
- Leak case – Incidents in which a government agency/public official launches an inquiry or investigation into a source who supplied a media worker with information and/or the journalist or organization that received it.
- Border stop – Incidents in which media workers are refused entry to a country or are stopped at the border by authorities and experience delays, interrogations, extended questioning or have their devices searched. The CPFP counts incidents for Canada-based media workers attempting to travel internationally or international media workers attempting to enter Canada. For incidents occurring internationally, we will track those involving media workers from Canada and those working for Canadian media organizations.
- Physical attack – Incidents of physical attacks — including assault and battery — against media workers while in the line of work or in a targeted incident. This category may include instances of targeted property damage (such as vandalism and arson).
- Intimidation, threats and verbal harassment – Incidents in which media workers are subjected to intimidation, threats and verbal harassment — in the field or as a result of their work — from members of the public. These incidents may include racial and gender-based harassment, attempts to intimidate a media worker while covering a protest, demonstration, or public meeting, or targeted threats against a journalist’s safety or life. This category does not include online abuse and threats.
- Other – Incidents that do not fit within one of the defined categories but where there is a demonstrable infringement on media rights.
Data collection of online threats will date back to Jan. 1, 2022.
- Online threats – Incidents in which communications sent in a digital format contain one or both of the expression of an intention to commit or wish physical harm on the recipient, their close connections such as family members, another media worker or media organizations at large; and hate speech.
The CPFP documents online threats that contain one or both of:
1) The expression of an intention to commit or wish physical harm against the recipient, their close connections such as family members, another media worker or media workers/organizations at large
2) Hate speech
Our online threat methodology is described here.
Both of these criteria are codified in the Criminal Code of Canada. But law enforcement responses, interpretations and regional variances in the consideration of hate crimes, as well as a number of other critical barriers to access and legal justice, if desired, leave many workers subjected to these abuses without recourse, representation or acknowledgment.
More on online threats
Media workers face a wide range of abuse in digital spaces, from co-ordinated campaigns to attacks on credibility and vexatious complaints to employers. All of these activities are intended to distract, to overwhelm and to silence. They may affect an individual’s sense of safety when pursuing a given story or discourage them from pursuing another. As such, taken in sum, they all have negative implications for media workers’ personal and professional well-being, as well as the public’s right to know.
The CPFP has set its threshold for quantitative tracking to capture the most extreme and incontrovertible threats made against media in online spaces. This is done to clarify the threshold at which an incident is documented for quantitative tracking and to set reasonable limits on what our team can systematically record and analyze over time.
Due to anything from the sometimes private nature of these incidents (for example, those delivered by email or direct message) to a given media worker’s comfort level with participating, the cumulative impact will be undercounted in the data.
Data across categories will be eligible for update in perpetuity. If we become aware of untracked cases that transpired in our collection period, they may be added at any subsequent time. Active cases or those subject to future changes or updates will either be denoted as a new incident or the initial report updated, as appropriate.
CPFP maintains an incident data spreadsheet Incident reports will be accessible online for events across 11 categories. Many individual instances of online threats will not be posted on the website in any manner other than in the spreadsheet and in aggregate in annual or special reports. Some exceptions may include cases such as those of highly publicized targeted campaigns, where targeted media workers have drawn attention to the nature of a response to them or where charges have been laid against an accused.
The CPFP welcomes, and regularly reviews, requests for our data.
In addition to the basic nature of an incident — the what, the where, then who, the when — the CPFP attempts to distill a variety of additional details to help us best understand the overall nature of press freedom conditions.
Where data is available, the CPFP will document information on everything from the person or organization that imposed the press freedom violation to the type of media impacted, distilled by factors like outlet, ownership and business type, and the primary medium of a given worker affected.
The CPFP will also document demographic information about affected workers on a voluntary, self-reported basis. That data, as well as answers to optional questions in the online threats submission form, will not be itemized in publicly available materials and may be presented in aggregate only.
How the CPFP defines journalism
In cataloging violations of press freedoms, the CPFP accepts as broad a concept as possible about who can be affected by infringements of their rights to report, framing eligible events as those where an individual’s right to access, gather and report information is violated when attempting an act of journalism in good faith; or when they are otherwise targeted for having done so in the past.
Efforts to define journalism through researchers’ analysis and media associations’ guides on journalism standards have historically offered a reference for understanding what constitutes journalistic practice.
Unlike many professions (such as regulated trades, law and medicine) where an individual’s professional designation is defined by the successful completion of a set of requirements (including exams and licensing), journalism has no such accreditation.
Journalistic work is instead defined and guided by a process of news and information gathering, verification, editorial direction, and preparation for publication or broadcast in a given medium. Several court decisions and rulings, as well as guidelines by various journalism organizations, including the Canadian Association of Journalists, have distinguished journalists from members of the public by highlighting the work the individual is conducting. In the case of a protest or demonstration, for instance, the journalist is defined through their reporting or documentation of the event versus those who are participating in it.
Because of the wide range of titles one can hold, or self-identify with, while engaging in these processes — whether a photojournalist or camera operator, reporter, content creator, student journalist, independent publisher or storyteller; whether an individual identifies as other than a journalist because of their technical expertise or because of exclusion from traditional journalistic institutions — the CPFP opts to use the term “media worker” when referring to people who may experience press freedom violations collectively or broadly.
Beyond the numbers: Tools, tips and resources
There is a wide constellation of issues that bear on freedom of the press that falls outside the CPFP’s methodology but that is critical to address in service of a comprehensive view of press freedom conditions in Canada. Our methodology establishes thresholds at which we quantitatively capture press freedom violations. This guideline for documentation outlines parameters around what data we collect and its limits so that our small editorial team can provide as accurate a data set as possible.
Tracked violations do not infer a hierarchy of infringements and how they affect the workers and organizations who experience them, nor the communities they serve. Rather, they reflect a set of categories our team can attempt to itemize at a numerically meaningful level to capture a snapshot of conditions across the country.
A holistic view of press freedom conditions also requires examination of the ways newsroom decisions, culture and economics bear on the public record.
The CPFP has an educational mandate, both fulfilled by informing people in Canada about the quantitative nature of press freedom violations year over year, but also to assist everyone from workers to managers, educators and students in contending with knowledge gaps about media rights and incursions on them. These offerings may include reports, educational toolkits, analysis and other resources.
In the development of the CPFP, we have consulted with a wide range of experts and workers in media labour, law, practice, and more. Through these sessions as well as an online questionnaire designed for working media, newsroom leaders and academics, we consistently heard of the need not only for data to portray a comprehensive scope of industry-related conditions, but also for equitable and free access to resources that assist in informing practitioners of legal rights and best practices in asserting them.
Transparency and sharing of information — both from outside and within — the media industry is crucial to a healthier news ecosystem and a labour force better equipped to navigate ongoing challenges to their work.
In addition to the quantitative tracking of press freedom violations, the CPFP’s tools and analyses may address subjects of concern and knowledge gaps raised by stakeholders, including but not limited to: Regional issues with publication bans; how systemic inequalities in newsrooms affect workers and the public record; targeted abuse of non-white media workers online; fear of reprisal and harassment on the part of journalistic sources; the cost, delays and abuses within access to information writ large and during the COVID-19 pandemic; public distrust of media; government and police lack of transparency and obstruction of access and information; First Nations and access to information; consistent obstruction covering land rights; censorship of and interference with campus publications; reporting on and conditions fomented by far-right and white supremacist movements; indemnity and liability; the opacity of the Canadian prison system; public agencies demanding advance questions to engage; industry economics limiting resources for in-depth coverage; conditions that result in climate reporting being sidelined by a news organization’s commercial interests; the spectre of legal threats from anyone including politicians, business leaders and other public figures dissuading the pursuit of enterprise work; vexatious legal harassment targeting of media for obstruction and harassment at public demonstrations; and fear of reprisal from inside and outside the newsroom.
Staff and board
CPFP is supported by an advisory board composed of individuals and organizational representatives who have expertise and interest in a range of press freedom areas.
- Amber Bracken, United Photojournalists of Canada
- Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Digital Democracies Institute
- Brent Jolly, Canadian Association of Journalists
- Carlos Martins, WeirFoulds LLP
- Martin O’Hanlon, CWA Canada
- Karyn Pugliese, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
- Julie Sobowale, Canadian Association of Black Journalists
- Chairs: Sonya Fatah and H.G. Watson
The development of the CPFP was made possible through the contributions of researcher/reporters Collins Maina and Riley Sparks.
BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association
Canadian Association of Black Journalists
Canadian Association of Journalists
Canadian Freelance Union
Canadian Youth Journalism Project
Canadian University Press
Committee to Protect Journalists
Digital Democracies Institute
Infoscape Research Lab
J-Schools Canada/Écoles-J Canada
Journalists for Human Rights
National News Media Council
Native American Journalists Association
News Media Canada
Room Up Front
Science Media Centre of Canada
United Photojournalists of Canada
With thanks to Lindsay Hannah, Many Ayromlou and Dan Westell of Toronto Metropolitan University; Rowen S. of the Freedom of the Press Foundation; Logo and artwork design by Mariah Meawasige.