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In wake of Washington Post columnist’s murder, MPs say Canada has role to play in defence of global press freedom

By Neil Moss      

MPs who are former journalists should speak out 'very loudly' to defend global press freedom, say MPs.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Irwin Cotler says as a former journalist, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, pictured, understands that press freedom is 'one of the most fundamental freedoms.' The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Journalists around the world are increasingly under threat, most notably with the murder of Saudi Arabian Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi on Oct. 2, and MPs who are former journalists say the Canadian government has a role to play in defending the freedom of the press globally.

“We [MPs who are former journalists] should be as direct in speaking about protection of journalistic rights–freedom of the press–as we possibly can, because we understand, those of us who have worked internationally have seen just how dangerous it is for a journalist to do his daily work in countries which adhere less to respect for the craft and the practitioners of the craft than we do here in Canada,” said Conservative MP Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.), a former Global TV News anchor and former foreign correspondent.

“I think we need to speak out very loudly and encourage Canadians to encourage the government to be a little more outspoken, a little more direct, a little bit more diplomatically effective in isolating those countries where freedom of the press is abused, and in some cases chronically abused,” Mr. Kent told The Hill Times in an interview last week.

Mr. Khashoggi’s murder has not only raised questions about press freedom, but also about the recklessness of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman–known as MbS–who has pursued a war with Yemen which has left more than 10,000 people dead.

A 2017 report by Article 19, a British human rights organization specializing in freedom of expression, found the freedom of the press is at its lowest point since the start of the 21st century.

Peter Kent said MPs need to be direct in speaking out about defending the freedom of the press around the world. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

There have been 60 journalists and 11 citizen journalists killed so far in 2018 due to their journalistic work, as well as 168 journalists and 152 citizens journalists currently imprisoned, according to Reporters Without Borders. Those numbers don’t include journalists killed or imprisoned where the link to journalistic work has not been established or confirmed.

Mr. Khashoggi’s case is the most recent cause célèbre. On Oct. 2, the Saudi Arabian dissident entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain divorce papers so he could marry his Turkish fiancée. It has been reported that while inside, Mr. Khashoggi was killed “within minutes.” His head was severed, his fingers removed, and his body was dismembered, according to audio recordings from inside the consulate that were described by senior Turkish officials to a pro-government Turkish newspaper.

The Saudi Arabian leadership has released a myriad of explanations for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and murder. First, on Oct. 3, MbS told Bloomberg that Mr. Khashoggi had left the consulate shortly after arrival; sixteen days later the Saudis changed their tune and said he was killed in a “rogue” fistfight. By Oct. 25, the Saudi public prosecutor said the murder had been pre-planned. The latest explanation was an effort to revise previous claims before the American government obtained new evidence that would “discredit” Saudi Arabia’s previous assertions, a Saudi “familiar with the situation” told The New York Times.

Last week, The Hill Times spoke to four MPs who were former journalists, and they said Canada has a role to play in defending the freedom of press, but one said it has to be careful, as when a government intervenes in matters of the press it can have the opposite impact of curtailing the press’ freedom.

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, who as a journalist had his life threatened, says having former journalists in caucus gives the government lived experience. The Hill Times file photograph

“We do need to do more to foster press freedom globally,” said NDP MP Cheryl Hardcastle (Windsor-Tecumseh, Ont.), a former community journalist at the Tecumseh Tribune for nearly 20 years.

Ms. Hardcastle said Canada should not be signing trade agreements with countries that curb journalistic freedoms, pointing to the recent Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement. According to the Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Honduras has the 141st freest press out of 180 countries.

Ms. Hardcastle added that there should be a human rights component in trade agreements like the recently passed CPTPP between Canada (which ranked 18th on the press freedom index), Australia (19th), Brunei (153rd), Chile (38th), Japan (67th), Malaysia (145th), Mexico (147th), New Zealand (eighth), Peru (88th), Singapore (151st), and Vietnam (175th).

Ms. Hardcastle said it’s not just the internationally celebrated journalists like Mr. Khashoggi that are under threat, but local reporters as well.

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan (Spadina-Fort York, Ont.), a former CBC reporter, said having so many journalists in the Liberal caucus gives the party a better understanding of the press and the benefits of a freer press, including an insight into the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.

“All of us [former journalists] know people who have found themselves on the wrong side of the government,” Mr. Vaughan said.

When working as a journalist at CBC Evening News, then-Toronto mayor Mel Lastman threatened to kill Mr. Vaughan. He said afterwards he was the target of roughly 56 additional copycat threats.

“When the climate changes and journalists become a target … it hits you. So when it’s a debate in caucus, the perspective of journalists is important to be there because it raises it to the prime minister whether in cabinet or caucus,” he said.

Mr. Vaughan said having a former journalist like Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.), in the mix is helpful to bring a lived experience of the press to the foreign affairs file.

Asked if Ms. Freeland feels an increased responsibility to defend the freedom of the press globally as a former journalist that is in such an impactful position, a spokesperson for Ms. Freeland pointed to a statement the foreign affairs minister made in May on World Press Freedom Day, when she said, “the media play an essential role in defending and advancing the truth around the world.”

“In too many places, members of the media face constant and unacceptable threats. The numbers don’t lie: last year 75 were killed, 81 were imprisoned, and one person is still missing. These attacks weaken democracy, silence the voices of the oppressed, and undermine public trust. We categorically condemn anyone who in any way intimidates and harasses journalists working in defence of the truth,” said Ms. Freeland.

Ms. Freeland knows the importance of the freedom the press as she has worked in the “highest levels” of media at The Globe and Mail, The Financial Times, and Reuters, said Irwin Cotler, chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and a former Liberal MP from 1999 to 2015.

“She knows [the freedom of the press] is one of the most fundamental freedoms,” said Mr. Cotler, who was federal justice minister and attorney general from 2003 to 2006.

“She has the standing and the credibility to be a leader in calling [out] those who not only violate the freedom of the press, but in this instance [of Mr. Khashoggi] order the assassination of people who are exercising freedom of the press,” he said, adding her voice “can be heard” and would have an impact.

Mr. Cotler said Ms. Freeland has gone through a series of “graduating steps” in her condemnation of the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, and said he expects it will continue to be on her agenda as the situation evolves.

Mr. Cotler is the chief international counsel for Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi. Ms. Freeland and Global Affairs Canada called for Mr. Badawi and his sister Samar Badawi–both human rights activists–to be released in a tweet in early August, sparking a Saudi-Canada spat which led to Saudi Arabia booting Canada’s ambassador from Riyadh, as well as freezing trade and investment between the two countries. Mr. Badawi’s wife and children are Canadians.

Canada’s traditional allies, such as the United States and the European Union, remained silent in the dispute, and Mr. Cotler suggested Saudi Arabia “felt emboldened” by the lack of reaction, and it took Saudi Arabia “down the road” leading to the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.

But Thomas Juneau, University of Ottawa international relations professor and a Department of National Defence analyst from 2003 to 2014, said Mr. Cotler’s suggestion gives “too much importance to Canada.”

“The broader argument is accurate in the sense that Saudi Arabia’s impunity [increased] after its war in Yemen, after the blockade of Qatar, after kidnapping the Lebanese prime minister, after vastly increasing domestic repression with very little response from the international committee, that’s what emboldened it, that’s what gave it license to do something like this to Khashoggi,” he said.

He added the Canadian-Saudi dispute is a “very small piece” in the broader pattern.

Conservative, NDP MPs urge Canada to look at imposing Magnitsky legislation on Saudis

Canada “must show leadership” in defending the freedom of the press and human rights around the world, said NDP MP Hélène Laverdière (Laurier-Sainte Marie, Que.), her party’s foreign affairs critic.

She urged the Canadian government to suspend its arms deal with Saudi Arabia, and to ask for a United Nations-led investigation into the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. On Oct. 18, Amnesty International Canada sent a letter to Ms. Freeland calling for a UN investigation.

Ms. Laverdière said once the investigation is completed Canada can take “proper action,” like listing those implicated in Mr. Khashoggi’s death under Canada’s version of the Magnitsky Act, which allows the government to impose sanctions on human rights abusers. The bill, called the Justice for Victims of Corrupt and Foreign Officials Act in Canada, was inspired by the case of Sergei Magnitsky who was a Russian anti-corruption investigator who died in a Russian prison under suspicious circumstances.

The Conservatives have also called for the use of the Magnitsky legislation against those responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s murder.

But Prof. Juneau said using the Magnitsky legislation against Saudi Arabia unilaterally wouldn’t have an impact.

“We matter when we act with others, which is why this government … played a reasonable role in getting the G7 to issue a common statement,” he said, adding that the Saudi individuals that would be hit with the sanctions do not have much investment in Canada.

The Canadian government has yet to state if it would consider imposing the Magnitsky legislation on Saudi Arabia.

“I think in many of these case of [human rights abusers] this Liberal government is more preoccupied with future votes for the secretary council and is less willing to take principled stances ahead of other democracies around the world,” Mr. Kent said.

There will be “more and more encouragement” for the Canadian government to act if the government does not apply the Magnitsky legislation when an investigation is concluded, Mr. Kent said.

The Hill Times

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