Is censorship on the rise in Canada?
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After a week of the Harper government again drawing criticism for hiding information or clamping down on dissent, the public’s eyes may have glazed over at the latest in a litany of cases. But are we getting inured to something serious going on at the federal level and throughout society?
There was outrage this week over a government audit into PEN Canada — an organization devoted to protecting writers from censorship — that some are calling politically motivated. “Why does freedom of expression threaten them?” tweeted Margaret Atwood about the Conservatives.
This week, too, news surfaced that the government heavily redacted a memo with details showing the effectiveness of the Canadian Environmental Network — a decades-old non-partisan group forced to close in 2011 after being denied funding.
Then there was Councillor Michael Thompson, whose outspoken criticism of the police force earned him a complaint (dismissed this week) from fellow members on the Toronto Police Services Board. That comes months after a Newspapers Canada report concluded the federal government was dragging its feet in making digitized information available to the public — and on and on.
Mention the word “censorship,” and images come to mind of another era: U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare” intimidation, and cuts at the time to “immoral” Hollywood films and literature deemed obscene. Today, we’re supposed to be in the information age, unlimited data at our fingertips. But are we seeing an insidious resurgence of censorship?
Prominent political scientist Stephen Clarkson thinks a mood of censorship has arisen in different ways. In Canada, the Harper government has clamped down on dissent in a far more extreme way than previous regimes did.
“What’s specifically new in Canada is the extreme control which Harper is exerting,” he says. “It’s not just censorship for what is said, it’s punishment for what people do that the government doesn’t like.”
Clarkson argues the situation is most precarious for civil servants and scientists whose communication about their research is restricted if they’re on the government payroll.
“Now they’ve been in power for so long, they can systematically go after what they conceive as their enemies,” he says. “It’s much more than the words of what people say or write, it’s what they do.”
And though we may see the digital era as encouraging the free flow of data, it is also encroaching on privacy in a way that may be making us restrict our own speech without even realizing it — because we feel we’re being watched.
“There’s a general shift because of Facebook and all this open-access sourcing,” Clarkson says. “There’s a sense that whatever we say or write is going to be overheard by somebody. And so then I think it probably leads to some self-censorship by citizens.”
It’s nothing new for governments to quash information that may embarrass them, says Nelson Wiseman, professor of political science and director of Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto.
But he gives the current regime a failing grade in transparency.
“There’s an Access to Information Act which is increasingly over time giving us less information,” he says.
The government heavily redacted the memo about the Canadian Environmental Network, which was only released following an access to information request. The redacted passages show a list of reasons from Environment Canada to continue funding.
“Of course it didn’t want the information out there, it embarrasses it,” says Wiseman. “It’s all a communications strategy.”
But is that just business as usual in politics?
“Every government tries to control information,” he says. “They only want to release what will make them look — in a good light. The Liberal government also did this, but not as dramatically. I suspect they’ll continue to do this if they get elected.”
Although every government has wanted to control information, it’s now easier than ever for them to do so thanks to advances in technology.
“I think what’s new is, in general, new Internet spy technologies which are very developed,” says Clarkson. “Even the German chancellor has had her phone bugged by the Americans.”
Take the long view, argues Wiseman, and information flows far more freely today than it did in the past. Canada’s Access to Information Act is only a few decades old.
“There’s more information out there now than there ever has been,” he says.
In terms of the ability to access and freely express information, it appears that we have taken two steps forward and one step back.
“I mean, the ultimate test here is that the Harper government was restricting information before they won a majority,” says Wiseman. “The Canadian public didn’t appear to care that much — or 40 per cent of them didn’t care that much.”