NEWSFLASH: Government interference is a threat to free speech everywhere
OTTAWA: The director of Reporters Without Borders in Latin America told a parliamentary committee Tuesday that determining what is “legitimate information versus propaganda is a very fine line.”
“Who’s going to decide which information is true or false? Who’s going to decide whether it’s propaganda or legitimate?” Emmanuel Columbié said during his appearance at the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Global State of the Free Press, in Venezuela and the region at large.
Last week, the Canadian government announced its intention to do just that when Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould announced $7 million in spending during the next federal election “to help Canadians critically assess news reporting and editorials … (and) how to avoid being susceptible to online manipulation by malicious actors.”
Gould’s plans to monitor the media comes months after Ottawa provided $600 million in assorted tax breaks and bailouts to “trusted” outlets in the mainstream media whose advertising revenues have tanked, noting it would allow recipients – including Torstar, Bell/Globe and Postmedia – decide on how to spread the largesse around.
Human Rights Watch’s legal advisor Linda Lakhdhir also appeared before the Global State of the Free Press committee to discuss government restrictions on journalism in Myanmmar where reporters have been jailed, some even convicted on espionage charges. Asked for an assessment of what most ails a free press, Lakhdhir’s noted economic viability.
“In terms of financial health and independence, obviously a media that is struggling financially is much more vulnerable to pressures to report certain ways or not report certain things if advertsiors or financial backers pressure them,” she said. “A fianncially healthy press is a press that has more freedom and independence.”
Columbié told the committee that the Venezuelan regime of Nicolas Maduro has gone as far as to restrict the paper supply, depriving opposition newspapers of actual newsprint. Though Reporters With Borders has had dialogue with authorities in both Nicaragua and Cuba on improving press freedoms, said Columbié, Maduro’s government has so far refused such engagement.
“We don’t get into politics but we are working very hard to denounce censorship and the lack of freedom of the press,” he said of the situation in Venezuela. “When media ownership is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, that’s very dangerious for freedom of the press … we do everhthing we can to promote mulitiple media sources. it’s a form of media pluralism.”
Questioned about the role of social media in Venezuela, Columbié said after controlling the paper supply, Maduro turned his attention to Facebook and Twitter. “(Because) Facebook and Twitter are very good but if the government sees these outlets as a threat, and too much information that’s dangerious to it, the government has access to suppress social media platforms.”
Interestingly, the federal government has expressed concerns about social media platforms like Facebook as conduit for bogus information, but in the absense of any details about Gould’s plans to educate the general public on how to detect credible or “trusted” news – appearing on Facebook or other platforms – Columbié suggested basic, critical thinking.
“If you consume information, you need to know where it comes from. If you know where it comes from you might understand why the information is presented a certain way and then you might want to find information from another source so then you can make up your mind,” he said. “People need to understand what a conflict of interest is, they need to understand that information can be manipulated.”
He also said the media credibility and the public’s perception of it was as much a responsibility of journalists. “Reporters have to be ethical, professional, and they have to go back to basics … they have to check their facts and cross check their facts and sometimes they forget to do that and this may lead to it why some people don’t trust journalists today.”