Press freedom has been threatened before, in Canada

Posted by on Jul 3, 2017 in Brian's Blog, Journalism, Justice, Media, Press freedom | 0 comments

“Independent press is under siege,” said the headline today on a New York Times story referring –   among other things – to President Trump’s bizarre weekend Twitter posting of a doctored video showing him tackling and pummelling a man with a CNN logo superimposed on his head.

The message was clear. The leader of the free world would like to beat into submission an American media organization that has been critical of his actions.

This has been tried before, in Canada. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now in the United States. Each of these countries has a constitution that prevents governments from interfering with the lawful right of the media to distribute facts and opinions.

In Canada, it was the Social Credit government of Alberta Premier William Aberhart that tried to put an end to the negative publicity that had appeared in the province’s newspapers after Social Credit became a political party in 1935. The Calgary Herald had warned its readers that the untried Depression-era economic proposals propounded by the Socreds – including a plan to print the province’s own money and pay $25 a month to every adult citizen – would result in a “setback which would take years to recover from.”

For two years after being elected, Aberhart publicly and repeatedly condemned the Alberta newspapers, which he accused of attacking him and his policies. (Sound familiar?) In 1937, his government introduced an Accurate News and Information Act aimed at licensing and effectively muzzling the press. The idea was to force the province’s newspapers to become “fairer” in their coverage of Social Credit by requiring them to print government-supplied “statements” equal in length to those attacking the government. Additionally, the papers were to divulge the sources of their information or opinions. Failure to comply and to print the government propaganda would result in fines of up to $1,000 a day.

A group of Alberta publishers, led by the Edmonton Journal’s John Imrie, denounced what they called a “gag law” and fought it all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In a front-page editorial, the Journal characterized the licensing bill as a “dictatorial challenge to every freedom-loving Canadian whose home is in Alberta.”

In 1938, the Supreme Court struck down the bill as unconstitutional. One judge went so far as to describe it as an enactment of criminal law, beyond the power of the provincial legislature because crime is exclusively under federal jurisdiction. Chief Justice Lyman Duff wrote that the right of free discussion of public affairs was the “breath of life for parliamentary institutions.” Aberhart appealed the decision to the British Privy Council, then Canada’s court of last resort. The English judges unanimously dismissed the appeal.

For its leadership in attacking the bill, the Journal became the first – and to date only – non-American recipient of a special Pulitzer Prize for public service. The prize, said The New York Times,  amounted to “recognition and reward for a long uphill battle to preserve the freedom of the press against government control, censorship and intimidation.”  Five other Alberta dailies and 90 weeklies received certificates of merit for their involvement. The Times noted that before the intervention of the Supreme Court, Alberta was “the only territory in the English-speaking world suffering from government restriction of the press.”

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