The CRTC is proposing a regulatory change that would give Canadian TV and radio stations more leeway to broadcast false or misleading news.
Current regulations contain a blanket prohibition on broadcasting "any false or misleading news."
The Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission wants to considerably narrow the scope of that prohibition.
It is proposing a ban on the broadcast of "any news that the licensee knows is false or misleading and that endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public."
The CRTC quietly posted notice of the proposed change, which is slated to go into effect on Sept. 1, on its website last week. The agency is accepting comments from the public until Feb. 9.
Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor specializing in communications issues, says the proposed prohibition is far too limited.
"If we're setting a high standard that you've got to actually endanger someone's life, health or safety, frankly almost anything that's false or misleading that's obviously outside of that fairly narrow scope would be fair game," Mr. Geist said in an interview.
For instance, he said false news that caused financial harm would not be covered by the more limited prohibition.
A CRTC official explained that the proposed change is in response to concerns raised several years ago by a joint parliamentary committee on scrutiny of regulations.
The committee feared the sweeping ban on false and misleading news was too broad and vague and wouldn't withstand a challenge under the Charter of Rights. Its concerns were based on a number of court rulings at the time involving freedom of speech.
For the same reason, the committee urged - and the CRTC is now also proposing - to narrow the scope of the current sweeping ban on programming that contains "obscene or profane language."
The proposed change would clarify that language is obscene if its dominant characteristic is "the undue exploitation of sex or . . . is sexual in combination with any one or more of the following subjects, namely, crime, horror, cruelty and violence."
Mr. Geist said he finds it ironic that the CRTC wants to limit the scope of the prohibition on false or misleading news in Canada just as debate is raging over the impact of venomous, often grossly distorted, political discourse on the U.S. airwaves.
That toxic environment has been blamed by some for the tragic shooting rampage at a political meeting in Arizona last week, which killed six and injured 14, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head.
Yet American broadcasters face a more stringent ban on false or misleading news than the prohibition now being proposed by the CRTC for Canadian broadcasters. U.S. law refers to knowingly broadcasting false news that causes "substantial public harm" - a phrase that Mr. Geist said can be interpreted relatively broadly.
With a new right-leaning all-news network, Sun TV News, about to launch in March, Mr. Geist noted there's concern in some quarters that Canada is about to import the more aggressive, American approach to political coverage. He suggested the CRTC's proposed regulatory change will only magnify those concerns.
"I think that those same kinds of fears are out there in much the same way [as they are in the U.S.] This just provides freer license to do it," said Geist.
The CRTC is not empowered to fine or imprison radio or TV executives who breach regulations.
The agency typically tries to persuade broadcasters to change bad behaviour and only takes punitive action - cancelling or refusing to renew broadcast licenses - when a broadcaster systematically and deliberately flouts the regulations.
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