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LAWTON: Media freedom conference pays lip service to press freedom

Canadian and British governments demonstrated they’re more interested in a glossy show of support for press freedom without conducting themselves in a way that fosters it.

At what was supposed to be a conference promoting freedom of the press, the Canadian and British governments demonstrated they’re more interested in a glossy show of support for press freedom without conducting themselves in a way that fosters it.

I’m in London, UK for the first ever Global Conference for Media Freedom, co-hosted by Canada’s and the United Kingdom’s foreign ministers, Chrystia Freeland and Jeremy Hunt. Despite the summit’s mission, several sessions were completely closed off to the press and public, and the politicians running things were been scarcely available to journalists.

Things got so bad that at one point the entire delegation of Canadian journalists threatened to walk out of a scrum with Freeland after learning I and another commentator, The Rebel’s Sheila Gunn Reid, would be denied access.

Freeland’s media liaison initially blamed what she said was the small size of the room booked for the scrum, though refused to consider requests to hold it in another section of Printworks, the 16-acre facility playing host to the conference.

The principled stand from reporters and crew for CBC, CTV, the Globe and Mail, Global News and Al Jazeera was truly appreciated. I’m sure we have numerous ideological differences between us, but there was a shared recognition that the hypocrisy on display from Freeland was unacceptable and threatened all media present, not just the two of us being expressly excluded.

Their decision to not participate in the scrum unless all covering it could left Freeland’s office with no choice. Her staff caved, and every outlet got a question, albeit with no follow-ups allowed.

I’ve no idea what Freeland had to fear as an experienced minister and former journalist herself. I asked my question without issue and she answered it; the exchange is precisely what the interactions between the media and politicians are supposed to look like. It just shouldn’t have been such an ordeal to get to that point.

The scrum was significant because only two pre-selected Canadian journalists were permitted to ask questions of Freeland and Hunt at a brief media availability on the first day of the conference. No private interviews were granted with either, and there were no other media access opportunities.

After a Thursday morning plenary session, Freeland was quickly extracted to a closed-off hallway as several staffers formed a human wall between her and the media.

Media were not allowed in the room for what may have been the most consequential part of the conference, a session with government representatives from around the world on “how to sustain the impact of the (Defend Media Freedom) campaign after the conference.”

I was kicked out the room moments before the event was to begin, by two polite aides who threatened to “escalate” matters if I didn’t leave.

I’m aware that freedom of the press is not an all-access pass to every meeting, just as it doesn’t conjure private access with a cabinet minister on demand. The issue here lies in that Canada, along with the United Kingdom, is speaking to the world about press freedom while refusing to honour the commitments it expects from other countries.

It was hypocritical, and cannot stand.

As the sessions went on, several speakers referenced George Orwell’s writings on totalitarianism. In fact, conference attendees on their way into the building had to walk by a large Orwell quote stencilled onto the side of a shipping container.

Orwell’s warnings on censorship and press freedom have been prescient. It’s a shame the conference’s organizers didn’t realize they were the ones about whom he was writing.

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