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Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti. (Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)
Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti. (Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)

Those in power need to believe 'freedom of the press,' not just say it Add to ...

If the tweets and e-mails from some of my ardent admirers are to be believed, the lamestream media are on their last legs, soon to collapse and die like the Edsel, the dodo and Crystal Pepsi. Everyone who practises our craft will have to retrain in more respectable occupations – in pole dancing, if they’ll have us, or used-car sales, if they’re not feeling picky.

I don’t share the cynicism about the future of this loopy, glorious craft, needless to say. When I taught journalism a couple of years ago, I told the students that the need for fascinating storytelling would never die, though we did need to find a way to ensure that we didn’t starve while practising our storytelling.

Somebody has to hold the feet of the powerful to the fire. That, for the longest time, has been journalism’s truest and highest calling. If you’ve smelled burning flesh lately, it’s because the powerful don’t like to have their feet singed. It’s one of the paradoxes of modern journalism that even as the business suffers setbacks and newsrooms shrink, the news media still have an unequalled ability to instill fear in authoritarian structures – especially the ones worried about losing their power.

Related: Montreal police surveillance of journalist a sign of ‘real-time tracking’

Related: Quebec to hold public inquiry into police surveillance of journalists

Related: Montreal police monitoring of journalist is a grotesque attack on the free press

Take the case of the police spying on journalists in Quebec. At least 11 journalists, and possibly more, have had their phones and whereabouts tracked by police for an unknown period of time. It’s deeply disturbing, not least because at least part of this spying was legitimized by Quebec courts. “During this whole period – I feel sick about it – the police had their noses in our phones,” Alain Gravel of Radio-Canada said.

It is horrifying, and politicians have made all the right noises with their lips about guarding freedom of the press, and a public inquiry has been set up by Premier Philippe Couillard. But if one positive thing can be taken from the whole mess, it’s the importance of the work that these journalists did in exposing corruption, in finding and airing the grievances of whistle-blowers. These activities were so alarming that agents of the state sought – and won – the ability to spy on them. It’s a twisted validation of a job well done.

The case of the Quebec journalists – or, equally alarming, the RCMP seeking the electronic correspondence between Vice journalist Ben Makuch and his source – is rare enough in Canada to be newsworthy. In the rest of the world, where strongmen like to flex their muscles, the threat to journalists is more visceral, immediate and dangerous.

Take those hopeless bromantics, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. One thing they definitely share, apart from a zesty taste for nationalism, is a loathing of the free press. Consider that Russia falls near the very bottom of the global rankings in media freedom and that 34 journalists were murdered there in the past 15 years, as Politifact points out. “Experts say the political climate in Russia is responsible for the high volume of journalist murders in the country,” Politifact wrote in its assessment of reporters’ security.

Anybody who has attended, or watched, a Trump rally knows that journalists do not rate a 10 on his desirability scale. Journalists are “the lowest form of humanity.” They are “disgusting and corrupt,” said the man who openly mocked the way a disabled reporter asked a question. Not surprising, then, that the crowds at his rallies often turn on the press pen in a cascading roar, shouting “CNN sucks!” and worse. Lately, some Trump supporters have taken to shouting the charming German word “luegenpresse,” echoing a Nazi slur against journalists (“lying press”). At one rally, someone left a hand-drawn swastika on the press table. Nope, nothing dark or sinister about that.

Mr. Trump has threatened to revisit U.S. libel laws, with the intention of making it easier to sue news outlets. The Committee to Protect Journalists has called him “an unprecedented threat to the rights of journalists.” If he’s elected, that is – there’s no way of predicting the future with certainty. Or is there? We could look overseas at what happens in countries where authoritarian leaders don’t like what’s written or said about them.

To cite just one example: Since Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a state of emergency following a failed coup against him in July, he’s locked up judges, lawyers, teachers – and many journalists. Some 140 are detained at the moment, in violation of their rights. Earlier this week, the government arrested a dozen of the top staff at Turkey’s oldest secular paper, Cumhuriyet, and shut down 15 pro-Kurdish media outlets. It is a brutal way of silencing dissent. International journalists’ organizations and human-rights group denounced the crackdown, saying that “Turkey’s current state of emergency is being abused to indiscriminately target any and all who criticize the government.”

Some 68 journalists have been killed in action around the world in 2016, according to the International Federation of Journalists. Looking at years of data, the group provides an even more disquieting number: Only one in 10 journalist deaths is ever prosecuted. It’s not what you’d call a huge priority in many parts of the world.

The trouble happens if the rest of the world leans that way as well, and “freedom of the press” becomes a thing people in power say, but don’t believe, because their feet are just a bit too warm.

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Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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