News Release: CAJ Demands End To Tribunals Interference In Free Press

January 2009

The Canadian Association of Journalists says it's time for human rights tribunals to stop the anti-democratic practice of investigating journalists for doing their jobs.

Yet another complaint against the media, this time involving Maclean's magazine, was dismissed late last week by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. The CAJ, however, maintains the process is an affront to freedom of speech and the press in this country.

"This decision does nothing to solve the real problem, which is that such tribunals shouldn't be taking on these cases in the first place," said CAJ president Mary Agnes Welch.

"Tomorrow, someone else unhappy with what they've read somewhere can lodge another complaint with these human rights bodies and start another time-consuming, expensive, bureaucratic process that, in the end, serves to chill freedom of expression."

"Since the state picks up the tab for investigating such complaints, and for any hearings held to discuss them, there is no cost to the complainant," she said. "Those accused, however, must pay to defend themselves. As a result, the fear of being embroiled in a human rights complaint may influence some writers and publications to censor themselves," said Welch.

Government-appointed human rights bodies are also not bound by strict rules of evidence found in a court of law, unlike cases involving the legitimate curbs on free speech found in the Criminal Code, such as libel and hate speech.

In the B.C. case, the tribunal was ruling on an article by Mark Steyn published in Maclean's in October, 2006 that discussed Islam, demographics and falling birth rates in the West.

"The idea that it's okay for these bureaucrats to sit in judgement of what should and should not be printed in a Canadian magazine is deeply offensive," said Welch. "We renew our calls for politicians to act to amend human rights legislation to end these witch hunts."

Last winter, the CAJ sharply criticized the dangers of allowing state-backed agencies the ability to censor speech based on subjective perceptions of offensiveness. Maclean's magazine and Ezra Levant, who faced two complaints in Alberta for his decision to publish the Danish cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, have prevailed in recent decisions. Both, however, have had to pay significant legal expenses to defend themselves.

The CAJ intervened in the B.C. case against Maclean's. The CAJ was represented in the case by Vancouver media lawyer Jason Gratl.