Workshop on Media Suppression

Workshop on Media Suppression

Stuart Freen is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

On Tuesday, March 16, IP Osgoode and the Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security jointly hosted the Workshop on Media Suppression. Held at the Schulich School of Business on York University campus, the workshop was split into two halves: Livelihood (chaired by Giuseppina D’Agostino, Director of IP Osgoode) and Life (chaired by François Tanguay-Renaud, Acting Director of the Nathanson Centre). Over the course of four panels the workshop covered a wide range of issues affecting journalists and the media today, including digital rights contracts for freelance authors, libel chill and the Grant v. Torstar decision, web censorship, and the legal recourse for journalists murdered or detained abroad.

The first panel was titled “Digital Rights Contracts” and featured Kirk M. Baert (Partner, Koskie Minsky LLP), Sandy Crawley (Executive Director of the Professional Writers Association of Canada) and Wendy Matheson (Partner, Torys LLP). The questions posed to the panel specifically dealt with the problems that freelance authors face in negotiating fair digital rights contracts for their work. The panel noted that freelance authors suffer from a serious lack of bargaining power, mostly due to the competitive nature of writing and the profession’s exclusion from the collective bargaining regime. The panel also touched on the Robertson v. Thompson Corp. case and the increasing trend toward exploitative written contracts for writers. Nearing the end the panelists discussed the overall problems with making money in the journalism business, both for publishers who are facing diminishing ad revenues and writers who are in turn facing less and less favourable contracts.

The next panel was titled “The Thawing of Libel Chill” and featured Elaine Dewar (journalist and non-fiction author), Heather Robertson (journalist and author, and representative plaintiff in the Robertson case) and Paul Schabas (Partner, Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP). Perhaps the liveliest panel of the day, it dealt with libel and defamation suits against journalists. Asked about the recent SCC Grant v. Torstar case, Mr. Schabas and Ms. Robertson indicated that they thought it was a step in the right direction, providing a workable defence for responsible journalists. Ms. Dewar, however, argued that any system that even required journalists to defend themselves against frivolous and vexatious libel lawsuits was inherently broken. The panelists debated over when the “chilling” effect of libel law actually sets in, and how to best shelter responsible journalists without breaking the libel laws altogether. The panelists agreed that libel law needs to be more predictable and that it should be less expensive to defend against vexatious lawsuits.

With the third panel the Workshop moved from the “livelihood” section into “life”. Entitled “The Role of Internet Giants in Totalitarian States”, this panel featured Ron Deibert (Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto) and Stéphane Leman-Langlois (Professor of criminology, Laval University). Each panelist gave a short presentation while Professor Tanguay-Renaud took over moderating duties. Professor Deibert lectured on some of the emerging trends in political internet censorship, surveillance and cyber-warfare, and recounted some first-hand experiences consulting with Google on the recent Chinese Gmail attacks. Professor Leman-Langlois then delivered a presentation discussing the societal concerns associated with web surveillance. In particular he questioned whether internet giants like Google should be entrusted with the task of creating and managing a “free” internet, since they are essentially profit-driven corporations that derive revenue from data-mining their users.

The fourth and final panel was titled “Legal Recourse for the Torture, Kidnapping, and Murder of Journalists” and featured Jayne Stoyles (Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for International Justice) and John Terry (Partner, Torys LLP). Ms. Stoyles first delivered a brief overview of the role of the CCIJ, and recapped the history of international criminal prosecution. She made special note of the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court. Mr. Terry then took over and detailed some of the difficulties lawyers encounter when attempting to prosecute over state borders. As counsel for the brother of slain Iranian-Canadian journalist Zarah Kazemi, Mr. Terry drew from a wealth of first-hand experience and legal knowledge. Both Ms. Stoyles and Mr. Terry expressed optimism that Canada could be the first major state to permit human rights actions to be launched against individuals abroad.

Overall, the Workshop was well-run and quickly zeroed in on some of the most interesting and contentious issues facing journalists and the media today. The calibre of the panelists was extremely high, drawing in key players and experts from across Canada. The audience was engaged and thoughtful throughout and there was no shortage of questions at the conclusion of each panel. With any luck this will not be the last event to be co-hosted by IP Osgoode and the Nathanson Centre, as the two halves complemented each other well and resulted in an excellent morning of panels.

A video recording of the workshop is archived on the IP Osgoode website here.