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Free expression, journalists under attack everywhere: Canadian journalism advocate

The attack at Charlie Hebdo is a painful reminder that free expression — and the people who act as conduits — is under threat every day, everywhere, the head of a Canadian journalism association says.

Last year was one of the worst in history as extremist groups started killing journalists as a public-relations tool, said Tom Henheffer, executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. Sixty-six lost their lives worldwide in 2014, either in conflict zones or elsewhere, according to Reporters Without Borders.

This year is off to an even worse start with eight journalists among the 12 killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack — playing out in a city that typically would be considered safe.

“This Paris attack was on a higher scale when it comes to coordination and planning, and the number of people killed,” he said. “It just goes beyond anything that we’ve seen before. It’s absolutely terrible.”

Henheffer said such attacks are extremely rare in Canada and risks for journalists are very low. But, attacks do happen.

Tara Singh Hayer, for example, was murdered in 1998 in Vancouver for speaking out against extremism in the Sikh culture. In 2000, crime reporter Michel Auger was shot six times in the back in Montreal for his coverage of biker gangs. Brian Smith, a Toronto sportscaster, was gunned down in a parking lot in 1995 by someone who reportedly held a grudge against media.

The lower risk in Canada can be attributed to the country’s history of tolerance for multiculturalism and integration and the media being “a little more polite and a little more culturally sensitive,” Henheffer said.

“Some people don’t think that’s a good thing, but I think it’s actually a good thing,” he noted. “That’s part of our Canadian identity.”

He, however, deplored the “growing culture of secrecy” in a Canadian government that has “an unprecedented lack of respect for democratic institutions.”

“They have done everything they can to deny media access to get to the Prime Minister and other politicians,” he said. “It’s a nightmare situation in many ways, and it affects free expression.”

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