Heritage Minister Defends, then Distances Himself from Parties Media Crackdown Resolution

After the party passed a media censorship resolution, the Heritage Minister defended, then distanced himself from it.

Last week, news broke that the Liberal Party of Canada passed a resolution that effectively called for the censorship of the media. The resolution itself called for “the Government [to] explore options to hold on-line information services accountable for the veracity of material published on their platforms and to limit publication only to material whose sources can be traced.”

The resolution caught widespread controversy on social media as experts and observers weighed in. Many condemned the resolution, noting that this would hamper efforts by the media to do their job of holding government accountable. What’s more, it tries to allow political entities to retaliate those who publish or reveal embarrassing details about the government or politicians. The party seemingly passed this under the guise of cracking down on online misinformation and disinformation, but the approach is absolutely terrible as it hampers the efforts of actual journalism considerably.

While people online were certainly not shy about talking about it, the media itself was a different matter. There was little to no broadcast coverage of the resolution that we were able to find. This is, of course, quite surprising given that the media, by default, should be very wary of government trying to kneecap their ability to do their job.

It seems that they were taking on a more low key approach and asked for comment from Heritage Minister, Pablo Rodriguez (probably their first mistake). Rodriguez, of course, is well known for being absolutely clueless about pretty much everything. That was made apparent with his handling of Bill C-11 and Bill C-18. So, it is probably not that surprising that he would handle this scandal just as poorly. From the CBC:

The resolution passed at the convention on Saturday morning, when there were only about two dozen people in the room. The policy resolution is among two dozen passed by grassroots party members.

Registered Liberals ranked it tenth out of 24 in order of priority.

The resolution is non-binding, which means the party can ignore it altogether.

CBC News asked the office of Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez what it would do. The party released a statement at 1 p.m. on Monday saying it “has and always will respect the independence of the press.” The office said an independent press “is fundamental to our democracy” and called it “the best defence against disinformation.”

The statement appears to defend the resolution and basically said that they are supportive of the press. Well, it appears that later on that same day, they had a change of heart. One might look at that and assume that the minister didn’t actually read the resolution in question. Afterwards, it seems that a second statement was released of the Minister distancing himself from the resolution:

Just before 5 p.m., Rodriguez’s office sent a response that put more distance between the government and the controversial resolution.

“A Liberal government would never implement a policy that would limit freedom of the press or dictate how journalists would do their work,” said Rodriguez’s press secretary Laura Scaffidi in an email.

The office would not say whether that means the government will commit to never implementing the resolution.

The disarray became more apparent when those who were behind the resolution defended it:

Responding to criticism Monday, the author of the resolution, B.C. Liberal Catherine Evans, said the policy was never intended to “target reputable Canadian journalists” but rather to combat disinformation people post anonymously online.

“This is so ironic to have misunderstanding about a resolution that is trying to combat misinformation,” Evans told CBC News.

Evans said the resolution is meant to target platforms like Twitter and Facebook and other websites that post misinformation. She also said some Canadian journalists “post information they have not verified.”

It was “probably a mistake”, Evans said, to use the technical term “sources” in the resolution rather than making it clear she was trying to target “anonymous postings.”

“No one is trying to ask journalists to reveal sources,” said Evans. “If there are bylines on it, they’re responsible for their sources. The journalist is then the source. If they’re talking to non-credible sources, that’s their problem.”

All this leads to the politically awkward situation where Liberals are distancing themselves from the Liberal party. Others were seemingly left scrambling to try and make up a story to try and pretend that this whole situation is no big deal. The whole mess screams that they didn’t expect anyone to be paying attention to what is going on. When the light was shined on this problematic resolution, they were left with that “busted with hand in cookie jar” look.

Hours later, even Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, found himself distancing himself from the resolution saying that the government would never implement such a policy. From another CBC article:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government will not adopt a controversial Liberal Party resolution to target disinformation that critics have denounced as potentially dangerous to freedom of the press in Canada.

Liberal Party members passed the “combating disinformation in Canada” policy resolution on Saturday. The proposal asks the to government “explore options to hold online information services accountable for the veracity of material published on their platforms, and to limit publication only to material whose sources can be traced.”

Trudeau committed on Tuesday to never implementing the policy.

“Liberals, like all Canadians, are right to be worried about misinformation and disinformation and wanting to make sure that Canadians are protected from it,” Trudeau told journalists on the way into a cabinet meeting. “However, that policy is not a policy we would ever implement.”

Critics have warned that the proposal could open the door to the government exerting control over Canadian media or forcing media outlets to reveal confidential sources.

Despite this, it seems that the damage was already done. In an article in the Globe and Mail, critics were already condemning the motion (probably paywalled):

Critics said they feared government intervention could disrupt this practice.

“While combatting disinformation is a worthy public policy objective, that particular proposal makes no sense whatsoever,” said Paul Deegan, president and chief executive of News Media Canada, which represents Canada’s news sector.

Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa’s Canada Research Chair in internet law, also criticized the resolution. “You can’t celebrate World Press Freedom Day on Wednesday and then pass a resolution that undermines the freedom of the press on Saturday,” he said.

“This is a very dangerous motion that would undermine freedom of the press in Canada and could lead to widespread censorship on social media.”

Cara Faith Zwibel, a spokesperson for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the policy, if implemented, “would represent a fundamental shift in Canadian communications.”

“It would seriously chill freedom of the press in particular and expressive freedom more broadly,” she said.

The thing in all of this is that this resolution isn’t even that far removed from what is likely going to be found in the online harms bill. That legislation is, of course, forthcoming. Still, it is expected to demand websites implement a flagging system to supposedly crack down on “harmful” content. What is considered “harmful” could mean anything from actual illegal content to “offensive but legal” content to alleged misinformation and disinformation. Failure to respond or comply with a flag within 24 hours would subject the site to a $10 million fine.

Indeed, criticisms towards Bill C-11 and Bill C-18 have been labelled as “misinformation” or “disinformation” from the government regardless of the legitimacy of the criticisms. Technically, the online harms proposal would actually by used to stifle or silence online criticism of the government or legislation. This is regardless if it was published on a news site or simply posted by random online users on social media. So, if anything, the resolution would tee up the online harms proposal nicely. In fact, when I first caught wind of this resolution, that is what crossed my mind at the time. The resolution really only throws in the requirement of having traceable sources as opposed to just content that someone might consider “harmful”. Yes a difference, but not really that big of a difference.

It’s quite clear now that the resolution has backfired spectacularly. Even the Prime Minister and prominent Liberal MPs and Ministers are distancing themselves from the resolution at this point. Clearly, even the Liberals that pushed Bill C-11 and Bill C-18 see that resolution as a bridge too far which is honestly the first time I’ve seen them throughout this entire fiasco effectively admit to that. It’s so indefensible, even Liberals realize there was no defending it. While it is interesting that there is a line, it probably partly has to do with the Liberals pushing Bill C-18 and pretending to be the defenders of the free press – even though it would actually likely blow up in their faces should Google and Facebook drop news links to Canadian news sources.

While the party is likely now wanting to see this forgotten, when the online harms proposal gets tabled, there’s a good chance people will recall this moment in time and compare it to what is being pushed in the forthcoming bill. Another day, another bad digital policy from this government.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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