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The blockade beside Parliament Hill on Feb. 2, 2022. Organizers of the Ottawa protest issued a statement taking aim at journalists this week that said 'Jail Cells are waiting for each of you!!!'BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Organizers of the so-called freedom convoy occupying downtown Ottawa issued a statement this week taking aim at journalists.

It included the usual complaints about how the media is biased and won’t tell “the truth” about vaccines or about the corruptness of our national leaders. It warned that reporters should expect to be charged with crimes against humanity.

“Media you should be scared for You know your days are numbered,” the group Canada Unity said. “Jail Cells are waiting for each of you!!!”

Once upon a time, a note such as this might have been greeted in the news business with some eye-rolls and a snicker or two. Not any more. The working environment for journalists in Canada (and around the world) is no laughing matter. In fact, it’s become downright scary for many in the field.

Last week, a CTV Edmonton staff member posted a photo on Twitter of someone removing the company’s branding from one of its news vehicles. Reporter Jeremy Thompson explained the action was being taken because it’s “just not safe right now.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

A news organization in this country has deemed it no longer safe to send its reporters and camera operators out in a car that identifies it as a television outlet – such is the level of vitriol and potential danger journalists in Canada now face on a daily basis.

The mistreatment, harassment and threats against journalists in this country – particularly online – has exploded in the past few years, and certainly during the pandemic. I am an opinion columnist and so should likely expect some strongly worded reactions to my work.

Still, it’s never a great feeling to read messages calling you a “psychopath,” a “maggot” or a “lying piece of” you-know-what, or to receive an e-mail stating: “I hope you die soon you vile, disgusting human being. Enjoy hell.” Nor is it ever much fun to be contacted by police about a threat to your life, as I was recently.

As bad as that may seem, my female colleagues and journalists of colour have it far worse. The level of misogyny and bigotry they face is not just depressing, it is something that should deeply worry us all.

The threat of violence journalists in Canada are subjected to now, in my four decades in the industry at least, is unprecedented.

To cover the Ottawa protests, some news organizations hired security guards to accompany their people into the main encampment (where there are signs that read “The media is the virus”). Remember, this isn’t a foreign war zone. This is a protest site in our national capital. And before anyone is tempted to suggest that the danger that these situations pose is being overblown, please consider the fact that on Monday the RCMP arrested 13 people at the site of the truck blockade at Coutts, Alta., and confiscated long guns, handguns, body armour, a machete and loads of ammunition.

In some ways, online abuse directed at reporters is more insidious and destructive. Its effect is to intimidate and dehumanize their targets. There have been many journalists who have had to seek professional help for mental-health issues, largely because of constant attacks from members of the public. A report this year by the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Canadian Journalism Foundation entitled Poisoned Well chronicled the chilling tide of online abuse reporters face and called on the government to do more about it.

There are dark forces around the world trying to undermine our democratic institutions for nefarious ends. In plain view, we witnessed a U.S. president attempt to erode public trust in the media without apologies. Donald Trump has emboldened others. Social media has made it easier to disseminate lies.

I don’t like writing about the media because it can come across as self-indulgent and self-pitying. But we have an emerging crisis with potentially serious, long-term consequences.

The 2021 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two journalists, one of whom was Maria Ressa of the Philippines. In her Nobel lecture, Ms. Ressa talked about the rise of authoritarianism around the world. She also warned that “what happens on social media doesn’t stay on social media.” Online violence becomes real-world violence. This country is no exception.

We are in a battle for the truth right now, amid an explosion of disinformation.

“Without facts, you can’t have truth,” Ms. Ressa said in her lecture. “And without truth, you can’t have trust.”

The role of an accountable, transparent media in a democratic society is critical – never more so than right now. And it’s worth protecting because we don’t want to begin to envision a Canada without a legitimate fourth estate.

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