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RightsWatch Conference 2013 notes

October 3, 2013
occupy photo

flickr – Jackman Chiu

Civil Liberties and Democracy in the Digital Age: Privacy, Media and Free Expression
Ryerson University, September 21, 2013

This was an excellent event for getting a sense of the current thinking around key issues concerning freedom of information. It wasn’t really advertised to librarians, alas; I only heard about it from a researcher’s email.

As always with my notes, I’ve put my commentary, where possible, in italics.

Panel 1 – Freedom of the press and the citizen journalist

Derek Soberol, citizen journalist

Sound bite: “If you see something, film something.” Interesting twist on a very toxic slogan used in the U.S. to encourage citizen spying.

Showed two cameras that have been destroyed by police as he put it, with some incredulity, “in Canada.” He believes that both citizen journalists and credentialed press need to document abuses of their ranks, i.e.- take videos of each other to document excess force and rights violations.

In an interesting side discussion in response to a question about making money on this work, he mentioned Jenna Pope, who’s a traveling citizen journalist who crowdfunds her work. This is a bit ironic, since the idea of buying a newspaper is ostensibly to do the same thing. It would seem that people want more coverage, and more granular coverage, and are beginning to pay for it through these new means. Where does this leave accountability, editing, nuance, perspective? A paid journalist, at the very least, has an editor and other controls on what they do. Then again, when the NYT publishes falsified stories (the Jayson Blair saga), that trust has been damaged.

Brian Rogers, media lawyer

Brian began by pointing out that in many instances, if we didn’t have eyewitness accounts of various events, then who knows what stories we would have heard from official sources. The credentialed press simply cannot be everywhere, of course.

The video one takes belongs to the creator, i.e.- one holds the copyright. He gave practical advice to counter the urge of authorities to acquire the device or video. Step one: they require a search warrant, so make a copy before that happens. Consider publishing it ASAP via YouTube or similar, also make it clear that it can be freely copied and reused (if that’s the intent). Fair dealing enables that to some degree. An explicit granting of rights makes it even easier.

Pointed out the simple fact that for “zero money” many of us now have the means of mass publication and distribution. No need for bulky equipment and expensive technologies. Gathering stories has become very inexpensive, but it can’t be done indefinitely because it costs money. He considers crowdfunding a useful alternative, citing the example of an online publication in BC that uses it to gather funds to cover various stories. However, he worries if we will have the resources to do investigative journalism. He called it “creeping professionalism.”

The good news is that in Canada there is no such thing as an ‘approved’ journalist that receives rights. Anyone acting as a journalist can avail themselves of any legal protections. It concerns the purpose or functionality of what one is doing. The U.S. just considered a shield law based around this functionality rather than formal credentialing.

He pointed out that for those who “publish” via newspapers or broadcasts are protected if they report on something defamatory (i.e.- a subject of their work defames someone or something), but that now needs to be applied explicitly to citizen journalism.

There is also legislation that protects those who utter statement of facts that they cannot prove. A crux point is whether this is about responsible journalism or responsible communication, the difference being scope of application.

He also put a plug in for Bill 83, Ontario’s anti-SLAPP legislation and encouraged those in the room to support it since it will impact their work if they intend to be journalists of some type.

In response to a question about the legality of filming public events, he said unequivocally that there is no need to destroy a camera or stop someone from filming, since it is their right if done in a lawful manner (i.e.- not obstructing the police in their work).

Kathy English – Toronto Star

Mentioned a quote from Morley Safer that she heard at an event: “I would trust a citizen journalist as much as I’d trust a citizen surgeon.” He got a very sympathetic reception for that from the mainstream media audience.

“Journalists can’t be everywhere.” That’s a simple point. She said she gets call from groups asking why the Star didn’t cover their event or protest. It’s simply not possible, nor has it ever been, for mainstream media to do this. Citizens are “filling the gaps of reduced staff” brought about by a struggling business model.

Mentioned media literacy and the desire from many for information that meets certain quality criteria. She mentioned in her closing comments the “journalistic arrogance” that journalists such as Safer and Keller from the NYT can exhibit with regard to citizen journalists.

Panel 3 – Access to information and open government

Pippa Wysong, freelance writer

Spoke to the issues around gaining access to federally funded scientists for interviews. Noted that in earlier times (1980s), this was not a challenge and one could go direct to the source. Shared the 2005 story of an author, who happened to be a federal research scientist, who was prevented from speaking publicly about a work of fiction that he had written that was topically related to his work.

Now it is challenging to get the interviews. If granted, often one must submit questions in writing in advance. On other occasions, a government monitor will be on the call as well. From her talk, it seems that this mostly occurs with topics around the environment and wildlife.

She presented evidence for what she referred to as this muzzling, some of which has been documented openly in the press (she had slides of articles and blogs). It’s rich irony that some of this has come to light because U.S. scientists have gone public with criticism about Canadian government actions. This has hit outlets such as The Huffington Post and The Rick Mercer Show.

What can be done? Not entirely clear. Canadian Science Writers’ Association is gathering information.

Paul Knox, Ryerson

Spoke about freedom of information and access to information issues, and how there has been a decline in the readiness of government to reply to such requests.

Reviewed the concepts involved, such as data and information, and noted that there are moral and ethical arguments for openness, as well as practical considerations, such as efficiency and effective policy development, for which information is a necessary component of good government. The moral aspect takes into consideration that the potential for abuse of power is great for a government since it exercises a monopoly over legal use of force and controls the legal system. Free and open access to information can check that impulse to abuse power. Alas, despite the fact that Canada was one of the first nations to have such measures, these have now been eroded by many changes to access to information provisions (he briefly reviewed some of the evidence and commentary).

What can be done? The Information Commissioner can speak out and address the issue. We can use the laws in place. Advocacy for various regulatory issues: lower fees, better information systems, etc. Also legislative advocacy, e.g.- granting more powers to commissioners to enforce compliance, reducing exemptions, routine disclosure. Last, constitutional advocacy, which would entail changing the fact that the Crown holds copyright on government information, which is not how things work, for example, in the U.S.

He suggests a “people’s clearinghouse” for FOI information, i.e.- a Web portal with information for citizens. Also, an FOI pledge, where organizations such as news organizations and journalism schools would publicly speak to the issues and agree to undertake ATI/FOI actions and commit to sharing information themselves.

David Eaves, entrepreneur

Noted that government has more ability to centralize control given the technologies at play.

Used the example of a system (GEDS – Canada’s Government Electronic Directory Services) where search logs, for example, could be used to find who spoke to an issue that led to an article or disclosure (sort of got his example captured here). Interesting scenario, and certainly conceivable.

Noted that the open data issue opens up a possible avenue for subverting Crown copyright by having different licenses applied to data that undermine that right. That would be an end run around the constitutional issue, it seems, if I understood correctly.

Plenary session 2 – Internet freedom – enabling repression or revolution?

Valerie Steeves, U of Ottawa

She shared an anecdote that illustrated the problem with publicly funded online initiatives: funders only like them as long as they remain uncritical. Shared another where a high school student was told she would lose her Internet access if she logged on to a ‘political’ site again because that was against policy (lumped together with porn and hate sites).

She feels that governments and school have all “bought into the discourse of control.” This happened in concert with corporations, who have very different intentions with the Internet, e.g.- creation of wealth. Pointed out an absurd Much Music gag where they had kids vote rights off the island to arrive at their favourite human right.

The marriage of public sector control concerns with private interests in using the medium to further their interests is an unfortunate convergence.

Michael Vonn, British Columbia Civil Liberties Association

Noted that in Canada one doesn’t have the “visceral awareness” that their data is being monitored and used by various corporations and Canada’s own version of the NSA (CSEC). She noted that most privacy experts assume it’s pretty much the same (i.e.- our data here is subject to the same kind of private/public scrutiny), but that there’s low awareness.

She pointed out it’s a formidable task to push back against these interests, not least when few are aware of the dimension of the problem, so the first order of business is to raise awareness and educate Canadians on the issues.

Discussion: Steeves feels that when talking about online exchange we need to move away from always bringing risk into the discussion. As she noted, democracy is messy, so overemphasizing risk tends to curtail what kids, in particular, could do in an online environment. She invoked the notion of the moral panic with how we’ve dealt with kids online: porn, hate sites, stalkers, etc. Our collective response was to put restrictions on kids, meaning telling them what they cannot view. There are parallels between this and what we do online around policy questions: “we can’t risk a discussion on (fill in topic here).” We need to foster debate, not shut it down.

Vonn mentioned that an Internet security expert she knows answers the question about where a safe place online might be (i.e.- beyond the tentacles of surveillance) by saying that he doesn’t know.

4 Comments
  1. October 7, 2013 05:04

    I have a response to this part: “In an interesting side discussion in response to a question about making money on this work, he mentioned Jenna Pope, who’s a traveling citizen journalist who crowdfunds her work. This is a bit ironic, since the idea of buying a newspaper is ostensibly to do the same thing. It would seem that people want more coverage, and more granular coverage, and are beginning to pay for it through these new means. Where does this leave accountability, editing, nuance, perspective? A paid journalist, at the very least, has an editor and other controls on what they do. Then again, when the NYT publishes falsified stories (the Jayson Blair saga), that trust has been damaged.”

    It’s actually not ironic at all that people would rather pay me than to pay someone else who has an editor and other controls on what they do. It makes sense. The mainstream media is so completely corrupt at this point that you never know if you’re getting the real story… and no one is usually held accountable because there are so many people who go into just one article. They can push the blame onto others.

    As an individual who posts photos/commentary as I see things happening, with no one to censor me or edit anything out, aren’t people getting the raw truth? Ideally, I could lie about things if I chose to, but part of being crowdfunded is actually keeping my followers’ trust, so why would I do that in risk of not being able to feed myself or pay rent?

    Isn’t it easier for me to be held accountable than someone who’s on staff at the NYTimes and will get a paycheck no matter what, even if they aren’t being 100% truthful?

    I clearly don’t need to defend what I’m doing as I have been a crowdfunded photographer for over a year now, so clearly whatever I’m doing is working and makes sense to enough people. But, I just wanted to make sure that you had thought about all of the aspects of it before making any judgements…

    • October 7, 2013 12:52

      Thanks for commenting. The irony to which I referred is related mainly to the business models that are converging here. There’s rich irony that we’re seeing the rebirth of directly funded journalism at the same time that newspapers are dying off, but that’s not really a major point I wanted to make.

      I do think that we all as humans need to recognize that when we report on something that objectivity is never really achievable. One chooses where to point the camera, when to start recording, when to stop, etc. There is, as you say, no need for you to defend your practice, nor was I implying that such was the case. But acknowledging one’s own bias is critical when it comes to telling any kind of story. The notes I took on this event are a case in point: they are only objective inasmuch as I try to point out where I am adding commentary. But there were many things I didn’t write down. Was it because I lacked time or type too slowly, or because I disagreed with the speaker and didn’t want to give their words further life? No reader of my notes can know for sure, and that’s my point.

      I take a somewhat more nuanced view toward the mainstream media. I would use compromised, rather than corrupt, i.e.- they are beholden to both their funding sources and those whose words they want to use. It’s not entirely fair to paint the entire media with the ‘corrupt’ brush, though, not least since the number of writers who are getting a regular paycheck as a staff writer for any media outlet is vanishingly small. It’s a freelance world, and has been for many decades. I think it’s overly negative to assert that editors serve no purpose. Take, for example, the hypothetical example of two articles on the same topic, one written by a citizen journalist and published directly on the Web, the other published in the pages of The New Yorker. The former has no additional fact-checking, no concerns with the validity of any particular claim (i.e.- bad information that’s not libelous carries no danger), etc. The latter has professional fact checkers as well as editors who know when and where to challenge the writer’s bias and to point to areas where the writer makes a claim that their sources and information do not support. The latter will have depth and substance that the former will usually lack.

      There’s clearly a place for both kinds of journalism–citizen and professional–and it would be best for society if both were healthy and vibrant. You’re doing interesting work, and I wish you continued success with the funding model you’re employing.

      • October 7, 2013 13:27

        I do agree with some of what you are saying, even the “I think it’s overly negative to assert that editors serve no purpose.” I don’t know if you misread what I wrote and assumed I was saying that, or if you just wanted to make sure to hit that point. Either way, I do see the purpose of editors, but since I am a photographer and not a writer, that leaves out the need for an editor. I write short captions for photos, and occasionally I will write a first-hand experience about something, but it’s never presented as a “news story.” So, at least for what I am personally doing, it works to not have an editor, or really anybody else helping me out for that matter.

        I’m definitely glad you are open to what I’m saying, since at first it seemed as though you didn’t see a need for citizen journalism.

  2. October 7, 2013 13:41

    Oh, very open to it. And I see your points around your medium and your approach.

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