The Canada Press Freedom Project is dedicated to building professional, community and public awareness around media rights in Canada. It maintains an ongoing database of press freedom violations, and tools and resources for media workers, organizations, educators and students to understand and counter those threats.
The CPFP records press freedom incidents in Canada since January 1, 2021, and those involving Canada-based journalists working outside the country, with the goal of increasing public understanding of the ongoing state of media freedoms. The site tracks violations across 12 categories as well as tracking online threats and online hate directed at journalists.
Launched by J-Source in 2022, the CPFP was developed with the support of the inaugural Michener-L. Richard O’Hagan Fellowship for Journalism Education. It is inspired by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which was founded by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2017. This is the second annual report since the CPFP site went live online in mid-December 2022. Our first report was issued in conjunction with the site’s debut and can be found on the CPFP site.
Documenting and assessing the range of infringements on press freedoms is a critical way of ensuring that the protections laid out under Section 2b of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are upheld. These democratic rights, which are described as a “fundamental freedom” (the “freedom of the press and other media of communication”), continue to be challenged in an age of technological and financial disruption within the media industry combined with external pressures on journalists’ capacity to do their work.
As our review of 2023 shows, a burgeoning concern in the area of press freedoms is the growth of online threats and harassment. This is a category we started tracking in 2022, and the startling rise in the number this year should be an area of serious concern given the studied impact of it on journalists at the individual level and more broadly on the freedom of the press. As research shows, there is concern about the chilling impact of online threats and harassment on the kinds of stories and/or topics pursued by journalists and newsrooms.
It is important to note that because quantifying online threats and harassment can be challenging (and unending), the CPFP adopts a high threshold as measurement for what qualifies (see details below). Our work in assessing which incidents count under this bar means we encountered a much larger number of deeply problematic attacks by members of the public on journalists. We note that a majority of the recipients of these attacks are women and that the nature of these attacks reflects deep racial and/or gender bias. These are areas of study we hope to examine more closely through qualitative analyses and in partnership with other collaborators in the coming year.
We would also like to draw your attention to our report on media exclusion zones across Canada published in June 2023. This report, A History of Media Exclusion Zones, authored by H.G. Watson, draws a connection between injunctions and police-driven crackdowns on press freedoms. Access to sites of protest, especially since most of these sites include protests by Indigenous peoples on their lands, remains a critical issue in terms of press freedom violations.
We hope that, by documenting incidents of press freedom violations and reporting on the broader issues that affect the journalism profession, we are helping journalists and those invested in press freedoms to better understand the many ways in which these freedoms are being threatened. Some of these are overt and clear and others can have a chilling impact on the capacity of journalists and journalism organizations to do their work.
The year in press freedom in Canada
Online threats and harassment targeting media workers were, again, by far the most common type of press freedom infringements documented in 2023. CPFP documented 65 incidents of threats of violence or targeted harassment based on a media worker’s identity. Because of the nature of online harassment, as well as necessary limitations on CPFP’s data gathering (see “The challenges in tracking online threats and hate” below), these numbers represent a fraction of online violence targeting Canadian media workers.
After online threats, denials of access were the most common type of interference affecting media workers in 2023. CPFP documented 17 access denials – a large increase compared to the six incidents recorded in 2022.
Overall, police continued to be one of the main parties responsible for interfering with the work of journalists, and were involved in 10 of the cases documented by CPFP in 2023.
Continuing a longstanding, problematic practice, police in B.C. used “media exclusion zones” to bar journalists from reporting on at least two important news events in 2023 – despite a 2021 B.C. court ruling emphasizing the importance of media access. Exclusion zones have become a key tool used by police to deny access to journalists.
Also in 2023, B.C. RCMP doubled down on one of the most significant recent violations of press freedom in Canada – the 2021 arrest of photojournalist Amber Bracken* during a police raid in Wet’suwet’en territory. In an Oct. 2023 court filing, RCMP lawyers argued, without citing evidence, that the arrest was legitimate, and that Bracken “was not engaged in apparent good faith news-gathering activities.” RCMP lawyers also claim that the photojournalist was “aiding or abetting” protesters targeted during the raid – a remarkable argument which is not supported by any evidence.
In a separate but equally concerning case which the Canadian Association of Journalists called an “egregious abuse of power,” an OPP officer detained GuelphToday journalist Richard Vivian, took his camera and seized his memory card at the scene of a vehicle collision in Guelph, Ontario in December.
Outside of Canada, foreign authorities targeted Canadian media in five incidents in 2023, either by blocking websites and social media of Canadian publications, or interfering with foreign correspondents – as in the case of Romain Chauvet, who was arrested while working in Greece, and journalists Jesse Rosenfeld and Anton Skyba, who were denied press accreditation to work in Israel and Ukraine, respectively.
*Amber Bracken is a member of the Canada Press Freedom Project’s advisory board.
The challenges in tracking online threats and hate
Building an accurate picture of online threats and hate is challenging. The volume of harassment targeting media workers is considerable; at the same time, many of the most serious threats are sent directly or are posted on private or semi-public chat channels. These threats cannot be tracked unless media workers report them or share them on social media.
Consent is key to the CPFP’s reporting process, and we only document online threats and harassment with the consent of those targeted. While important to avoid further harm to those already dealing with online violence, this also limits the data we can collect.
Categorizing online threats and harassment can also be complex. CPFP tracks digital communications that contain either 1) a threat of violence to individual media workers, their families or close connections, or to a specific publication or the media in general, or 2) targeted harassment on the basis of a media worker’s identity.
In some cases, this includes online speech which would not be considered criminal in Canada – so-called “lawful but awful” speech. We believe it’s important to document these messages in addition to explicit threats of violence. While security is a real concern for many media workers who receive online threats, the mental health cost and possible chilling effect of constant online abuse is also significant.
In addition to the emotional effects and security concerns, much of the burden of dealing with online threats falls on those targeted. This can include often-fraught decisions about whether to report the threats to employers, editors, unions or police, as well as communicating with online platforms used to send threats and, in some cases, reporting to police – a process which, in many cases, continues to be time-consuming and unsatisfactory. This considerable burden on overworked journalists in an already challenging industry further complicates efforts to track this problem.
The incidents recorded in CPFP’s data provide a good snapshot of the situation, but given these challenges and necessary restrictions, they represent a fraction of online violence targeting Canadian media workers.
CPFP documented 65 online threats and targeted harassment, all targeting women. In addition, of the incidents tracked but not formally documented since CPFP began tracking online threats in 2022, nearly all were aimed at women media workers, with a disproportionate percentage targeting Indigenous women and women of colour.
Engagement with the advisory board
The CPFP advisory board is composed of subject area experts whose understanding of their field of specialty advances conversations about how to track and record press freedom violations, and to consider critical areas for current and future exploration. The advisory board members include:
Amber Bracken, United Photojournalists of Canada
Brent Jolly, Canadian Association of Journalists
Carlos Martins, WeirFoulds LLP
Karyn Pugliese, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Julie Sobowale, Canadian Association of Black Journalists
Martin O’Hanlon, CWA Canada
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Digital Democracies
Between the inception of the project and December 2022, the board was co-chaired by H. G. Watson and Sonya Fatah. Over this period there have been a few small changes in board composition. During the development phase, Brendan de Caires (PEN Canada) and Wawmeesh Hamilton assisted the board with recommendations and insights, and Karyn Pugliese joined the board in December 2021.
The advisory board met once in the 2023 calendar year, over Zoom, on Oct. 26, 2023 Meeting attendees included Brent Jolly, Marin O’Hanlon, Julie Sobowale, Carlos Martins and CPFP staff Chris Waddell, Steph Wechsler, Riley Sparks, H.G. Watson and Sonya Fatah.
The objective of this meeting was to bring the board up-to-date with activities since our December 2022 launch, update them on the financial status of CPFP and future funding options, announce the details related to the Law Foundation of Ontario grant (see below) and to raise questions about complex cases by way of discussing challenges with methodology and/or specific cases that are difficult to categorize. Steph Wechsler and Riley Sparks provided some details about specific cases for the board’s consideration. Also discussed during these meetings were expectations of board members as well as partner organizations that support CPFP through dissemination of material, collaborations and/or other means.
Over the course of the year, members of the board provided individual support and direction for various projects. CPFP received a grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario of $128,060 for a project to develop legal resources and guides on specific press freedom issues for journalists and journalism educators. CPFP’s application for this grant was supported by letters from three board members: Julie Sobowale, Carlos Martins and Brent Jolly. In addition, members Julie Sobowale and Carlos Martins supported the development of the application through independent conversations and their perusal of drafts of our application before it was submitted. Their legal guidance will continue over the two-year period of the grant as CPFP launches the editorial process for guides and tools in areas including online threats and harassment, exclusion zones lawsuits, social media and libel and slander.
The board continues to play a critical role in CPFP’s work because of its diverse composition and expertise. Individual board members provide guidance and direction on matters with which they are most familiar and advance our understanding of those areas. CPFP is grateful to its board for its consistent support and engagement with the issue of press freedom violations.
How the CPFP defines journalism and journalists
In cataloguing 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.
Access Denials: 17
CPFP documented 17 denials of access in 2023 – nearly three times as many as in 2022 (6).
Police denied access to media workers in nearly half (8) of those incidents. In five incidents, media workers reported that police used or threatened to use physical force; in four incidents, police threatened media workers with arrest.
While the overall number of access denials recorded in 2023 is lower than the 24 incidents recorded in 2021, most (17) of the 2021 denials took place during the Fairy Creek land-defence/anti-logging protests on Vancouver Island, when media workers were routinely denied access and threatened with arrest, and in some cases, arrested and charged.
By comparison, in 2023, just two of the access denials happened during land defence protests, while nearly a third each were reported by media workers covering daily news stories (6) or political party conventions (6) across the country.
Chilling statement: 8
Chilling statement is a broad category of incidents including statements which may, or may be perceived to, have the potential to prevent a media worker or organization from doing their job. This can include threats made by politicians or public figures, as well as legal tactics like SLAPP lawsuits which aim to chill reporting.
Police were responsible for five of the eight incidents documented by CPFP in 2023, including three incidents targeting journalists from independent publication Ricochet. Another two incidents involved requests from the Indian government to block web access to Canada-based publications focusing on the Sikh community. In an eighth incident, Conservative Party MPs attacked CBC coverage of the crisis in Israel and Gaza, with one MP arguing that the broadcaster had chosen to “side with the terrorists” and was “pumping out false information.”
Physical attacks: 3
The number of physical attacks declined in 2023, with three physical attacks documented this year, compared to 10 in 2022. Most of the incidents in 2022 were reported by media workers covering the convoy protests in Ottawa and elsewhere, where journalists regularly faced harassment and physical violence.
Arrest/criminal charge: 2
Equipment seizure: 1
Equipment damage: 1
CPFP documented two arrests or criminal charges in 2023, one incident in which a media workers’ equipment was seized and one incident in which a newsroom (Radio-Canada) was vandalized.
In Guelph, Ontario in December, an OPP officer detained and seized a camera and memory card belonging to GuelphToday journalist Richard Vivian, who was reporting on a vehicle collision.
In October, Canadian journalist Romain Chauvet was arrested in Athens, Greece, while reporting on the arrival of a flight evacuating Canadian citizens from Israel. In a situation which the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec described as “worrying and deplorable,” Chauvet was convicted of “disseminating false information” and received a six-month suspended jail sentence after a trial based largely on the evidence of a single witness.
This category includes 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. The category does not include online threats and harassment, which are counted separately.
CPFP documented two incidents of intimidation/harassment. In November, a security guard working for the Trans Mountain Pipeline project in B.C. drove a truck toward a group of journalists from Ricochet, IndigiNews and The Real News Network, nearly hitting one.
In September, members of a group chat dedicated to extremist group Diagolon stalked a journalist, sharing her location and photos of her in real-time.
In our first year, the CPFP site had approximately 2,000 users, averaging just under 170 users per month. Those monthly user numbers fluctuate in response to events involving press freedom issues that generate public and media interest.
It is no surprise that 70 percent of users are in Canada, with another almost 18 percent in the U.S., followed by China at slightly more than 5 percent. No other country accounts for more than 1 percent of our users.
Just more than 20 percent of site users are in Toronto, the centre of the country’s media, followed by Quebec City at 9 percent, then Vancouver and Ottawa, each with more than 4 percent of our total audience.
English is overwhelmingly the first language of CPFP users at more than 93 percent of total users. French and Chinese are the first languages of each of slightly more than 2.5 percent of total users.
Beyond the numbers – Tools, tips and resources
There is a wide constellation of issues related to freedom of the press that falls outside of 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.
In September 2023, the CPFP received a $128,060 grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario to prepare over the next two years a series of legal guides/educational tools on a range of press freedom issues. As completed, each guide will be freely available on the CPFP site for use by journalists, newsrooms, students, researchers and the general public.
The guides will focus on deconstructing law and its application in areas of ongoing or material press freedom conflicts. The planned initial set of legal guide topics include online harassment and threats; employment standards and legal protection; SLAPP suits; social media and libel and slander; systemic discrimination and its bearing on the public record; access to information and Indigenous communities; student and campus media; and publication bans.
In developing 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.
We welcome suggestions on additional subjects that should be addressed by guides to be produced in 2024 and 2025.
How you can get involved
There are several ways you can get involved and help us track press freedom violations affecting Canadians.
- Submit an incident report – If you have been involved in or observed a possible press freedom violation, complete and submit the online incident report form on the CPFP site. We will confirm the details in your report, categorize the violation and post a report on the CPFP site. You may want to review our site methodology for what we track before completing the incident form.
- Submit a report about an online threat or hate message – Online threats or hate messages can be reported through a separate form, which also includes details of our methodology and different ways to submit a report should you wish to do so anonymously. .
- Use our data for research – You can request our data by completing this online form. Data is available in spreadsheet format.
- Donate to CPFP – Donations to the Project support our staff in reviewing incident reports, confirming the details of the incident and categorizing and preparing reports for the site on each confirmed incident. You can make a one-time or monthly donation to support the CPFP’s work through the J-Source FutureFunder site at Carleton University. All donors will receive charitable donation tax receipts for their contributions.
CPFP financial supporters
The Canada Press Freedom Project benefits from the financial support from the following organizations:
- British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association
- CWA Canada
- The Canadian Journalism Foundation
- The Journalism Research Centre at Toronto Metropolitan University
- Ken and Debbie Rubin Public Interest Advocacy Fund
- Journalism at The Creative School, Toronto Metropolitan University
- Journalism at Carleton University
- The Law Foundation of Ontario
- Michener-L. Richard O’Hagan Fellowship for Journalism Education
CPFP partner organizations
- Canadian Association of Black Journalists
- Canadian Association of Journalists
- Canadian Youth Journalism Project
- Canadian University Press
- Canadian Journalism Foundation
- Committee to Protect Journalists
- CWA Canada
- Digital Democracies Institute
- Indigenous Journalists Association
- Infoscape Research Lab
- Journalists for Human Rights
- J-Schools Canada/Écoles-J
- National News Media Council
- News Media Canada
- PEN Canada
- Room Up Front
- Science Media Centre of Canada
- Unifor Canadian Freelance Union
- United Photojournalists of Canada
- World Press Freedom Canada