In November, the winner of the first Canada-United Kingdom Media Freedom Award was announced by government representatives.
The prize is designed to promote free press globally and encourage other nations to improve security for reporters. It was awarded to the Belarusian Association of Journalists. The association from Minsk has won several awards for its work despite media suppression from the Belarusian government.
While I’m sure the journalists appreciate the award, the announcement feels more like lip service than a meaningful effort to promote a free press.
Andrei Bastunets, the president of the association, said that journalists in Belarus “have to work under gunfire,” and are the “victims of police violence and are sentenced to long-term arrests for their work.”
Honouring the commendable work of journalists fighting state oppression in a dictatorship is one way to make life at home feel peachy. But it’s a cheap and meaningless platitude when the actions of the governments granting the award don’t line up with their words.
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Last April, the United Kingdom slipped to number 35 in the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom rankings, from 33 the year before. The U.K. is ranked among the worst in Western Europe. In previous years, the U.K. suffered as former prime minister Theresa May and former home secretary Amber Rudd talked up plans to discourage the use of end-to-end encrypted messaging and requested that big tech firms decrypt private messages on demand.
In the most recent ranking, the U.K. was hit hard by the serious threats posed to the safety of journalists in Northern Ireland while covering paramilitary activity and crime. The failure to establish a national committee for the safety of journalists – despite the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announcing it would do so in 2019 – didn’t help.
In June 2020, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms issued a warning to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after he excluded alternative media from his press conferences. The legal advocacy organization defended the rights of an alternative media journalist who was physically removed from a press conference on May 27, 2020.
That followed Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault proposing a government licence for news media outlets to determine who may officially be considered a media outlet. The Liberals soon walked back the shocking proposal, but talk of regulating internet content providers hasn’t died down.
Left-wing activists have long said that the free press isn’t really free because it’s owned and run by old, white, male billionaires. And perhaps this is something the left and right can agree on. It’s the reason the online media revolution happened, with alternative journalists creating shows on YouTube, new podcasts appearing all the time and individuals sharing information directly on Twitter and social media to bypass the media outlets entirely.
This is the new media, and on top of the challenges that traditional journalists face, big tech poses a new and terrifying threat to everybody else.
In May, Google began censoring Western users who criticized the Chinese Communist Party. American tech entrepreneur Palmer Luckey described how every comment he ever made about an internet propaganda division of the Chinese Communist Party, known as Wumao, was deleted. Google also deleted all new comments that other users made.
In January, alternative social media app Parler was removed from the Google and Apple app stores after big tech claimed that the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill rioters used the app to organize online. The FBI confirmed that the violence was organized on other social networks, including Twitter, but the app store ban remained in place. Amazon then delivered a death blow by removing the platform’s access to its servers, taking the website down entirely.
The West has by no means a truly free press. And as the media landscape continues to change, the freedom of the press will only diminish as long as the new culture of internet censorship persists. And it looks like it will.
I was shot at with rubber bullets and blinded by tear gas while reporting on the Gilets Jaunes riots in Paris, and it sure made me miss life back at home. But before Canada or the United Kingdom start lecturing the world about press freedom, perhaps we should get our own ducks in a row.
Jack Buckby is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.