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Canada University of Toronto launches law course in global bid to protect media freedom

Adrian Ling, one of the students enrolled in the University of Toronto's new law course aimed to protect press freedom, on campus in Toronto on Sept. 3, 2019.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

The University of Toronto’s law school has joined a global effort to fight incursions against media freedom that it says are on the rise not only among authoritarian governments, but in Canada and other democracies.

The school’s International Human Rights Law program is launching a course this fall, called the Media Freedom Model Laws Project, to examine how laws related to espionage and official secrets affect news reporting, in Canada and abroad, and how they can be narrowed, or rewritten. It is one of several universities around the world, including King’s College London, Columbia University in New York and Korea University, that will be drafting model laws to protect media freedom, each in a separate area of law.

“It’s not just cartels or organized crime or illiberal or authoritarian governments that attack media,” Vincent Wong, who is teaching the model-laws course, said in an interview.

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“There are actually many ways in which media freedom is under attack from a legal perspective. It’s kind of hidden under a framework, an architecture of legalese that is premised on national security and enormous executive discretion with no oversight.”

He mentioned two cases in Canada, one already decided by the Supreme Court and one that will be heard this fall. In the Vice Media case last year, the court ruled that a reporter had to turn over his research materials on a terrorism file to the RCMP. In another case involving leaks, although not about national security, it is being asked to decide whether Quebec journalist Marie-Maude Denis must reveal her sources.

And the United States has seen a spike in legal cases, begun under former president Barack Obama and continued under President Donald Trump, brought against government employees who leak official information and journalists who report the leaks, he said.

The model-laws project at the U of T and other law schools is part of a broader global effort whose goal is to develop legal instruments to protect journalists and news reporting.

The global undertaking is led by David Neuberger, former president of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, and human-rights lawyer Amal Clooney. A former Canadian attorney-general, Irwin Cotler, is also among its leaders, with all regions of the world represented. It emerged from a conference held in July in London, organized by Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, and Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

“Media freedom is intrinsic to the protection of human rights and the lifeblood of the democratic order,” Mr. Cotler, who oversaw the development of national-security legislation in Canada, said in an interview. “We’re witnessing a very dire situation: 2018 was the worst year on record for violence against journalists.”

At least 99 journalists were killed, 348 imprisoned, and 60 held hostage, he said, and attacks have been intensifying in Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela.

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Adrian Ling, a second-year law student, signed on as one of eight students of the class, after a summer job placement in Hong Kong as a researcher with PEN International, a writers’ group.

There, he said he was inspired by the work journalists did at great risk to report accurately on the pro-democracy protests.

“I’d like to contribute to something that really has a positive impact on how journalists are able to do their work worldwide,” Mr. Ling said in an interview. “Something that will better protect them in all of the risks that they face, both physical and political.”

The International Human Rights Program is funded by the law school and private donations, and has submitted a funding proposal for the model-laws course to the project’s leaders, as it was invited to do, said Alexis Archbold, an assistant dean of the law school.

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