Does Bill C-10 equal censorship, and the demise of community media?

CHARLOTTE COUNTY – It’s becoming a hotly debated topic. The Liberal party say increased censorship via the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) won’t be expanded to allow the body to govern social media. Opponents to Bill C-10 say it’s a slippery slope to enabling the CRTC to regulate social media posts made by Canadians. The issue up for debate? Bill C-10.

According to the federal Department of Justice website, Bill C-10 amends the existing Broadcasting Act, which “sets out the broadcasting policy for Canada, as well as the role and powers of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission”, but the bill has it’s opponents, including Southwest New Brunswick MP John Williamson, who worries the bill will amount to little more than censorship, and will allow the federal government to control what Canadians get to see online.

“It’s a huge piece of legislation that is trying to tackle big tech and some of the challenges around its tax status,” said Williamson. “It’s a large bill on the telecommunications sector in Canada. It has turned the technical bill into a bill that more and more people and organizations are decrying for its potential to allow government agencies to determine what’s online. I think we’d call that censorship in another era.”

Williamson said the issue has been debated in Parliament, and he worries about the implications of this bill. He added this is the number one issue he has been hearing about from his constituents, because people are becoming more and more aware of the effect Bill C-10 could have.

“People are becoming aware of the implications of the bill, and rightly don’t like that Ottawa thinks it has the ability, let alone the right, to control what’s online, what people put online,” said Williamson.

“That’s why I think we’re seeing the reaction. We’re seeing online communications to members of Parliament across the country. Canadians and politicians can disagree on a whole lot of ideas, but where there’s a lot of agreement is the right to have those debates and not to have Big Brother in Ottawa deciding what kind of speech is appropriate, and what is not. Obviously, I’m not talking about hate speech or speech that invokes violence. We’re talking about political discussions around ideas.”

Bill C-10 is currently in committee, and has gone through two votes in the House of Commons. Williamson said it is just “two or three votes away from getting to the House of Commons”. He also said it is supported by the NDP and the Green Party, so there are potentially enough votes to allow the bill to pass.

Federal bills must pass a first and second reading in the House of Commons before being sent to committee for a clause by clause discussion, where expert witnesses can provide information which may improve the bill. The committee stage results in a report, where any proposed amendments to the bill are clearly indicated. The House considers and votes on the amendments and the bill then heads for a third and final reading in front of the House before moving on to the Senate for further consideration. If a bill passes through the House and Senate, it is presented to the Governor General for Royal Assent. Once a bill receives Royal Assent, it officially becomes a law.

“It’s very much alive and working its way through Parliament.”

When asked if there was any part of this bill he supports, Williamson said in its current form, Bill C-10 “needs to be killed”. He said the bill must be sent back to the drawing board in order to allow government to focus on the reforms needed for “big tech”.

“Going after individual Canadians and individual (social media) posts makes this bill completely unacceptable,” said Williamson. “The powers are there. This bill has no place in a democratic society. I’m going to vote against it. If this bill passes, and should we (PC’s) form the next government, we will repeal it.

“It will get through Parliament unless one of those other two parties (Green and NDP) has a change in outlook, which is not impossible,” said Williamson. “The voices we’re hearing against this bill run the political horizon. It’s not just Conservatives we’re hearing from. It’s Canadians who rightly concerned about this bill, and oppose it.”

What effect, if any, will Bill C-10 have on smaller media outlets, such as community television stations? Patrick Watt, TV production manager at CHCO Television in Saint Andrews said the biggest concern is to make sure community media is properly defined. He said they want to ensure community broadcasting is defined in a way which ensures it isn’t forgotten.

Watt worries because the media giants are the main players in this game, there is a good chance smaller companies such as CHCO will be forgotten completely and will not be treated fairly. He agrees that there is a need to distribute Canadian content and limit foreign content, but there is also a need to treat everyone fairly.

“As community broadcasters that aren’t tied in with those bigger players because we’re independent, we’ve got a lot more to lose if we’re not better defined in the system as a whole,” said Watt. “Bill C-10 mentions community media as being one of the elements of the broadcasting system. So, you need to have a careful balance of private and public or government run and community run media to have a balanced democracy. Community media, when it’s organized and done at the grass roots level, is very important because as the other media companies become bigger and more regionalized, they don’t have feet on the street in smaller communities.”

Vicki Hogarth, on-air journalist with CHCO, said the groups that are getting recognized in Bill C-10 are for profit organizations. CHCO is a community station, and the goal is to keep the community informed as opposed to profits.

“When you’re a community station and profits aren’t your goal, you become a platform for voices that wouldn’t otherwise be heard,” said Hogarth.

In the past, community television was fostered by cable television subscriptions. But, cable television is on the decline, and companies that once offered community television are more interested in commercial media content. Watt said because community television isn’t as well-defined in Bill C-10 as it should be, this could allow the CRTC to funnel their funding to other interests.

“It has kept our community broadcasting out of the funding mechanism in Canada. Because of C-10’s lack of definition of what community broadcasting is, it’s allowed the bigger players to get the funding, and control the distribution of that,” said Watt.

“It makes it harder for community media or community broadcasting to get a foothold. The biggest thing we want the government to realize with Bill C-10 is that community television can be independent and not for profit.”

Recently, Watt and Hogarth drafted and sent a letter to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh to voice their concern over the lack of clarity in the bill. In the letter, they said although the elimination of hate speech and other questions surrounding the bill are important, this coverage has “overshadowed an issue just as critical to the health of the media and its role in upholding our democracy, the role and definition of community TV”.

In their letter, they commented that Bill C-10 amounts to “a final nail in the coffin for what is left of the once-robust network of true community television stations across Canada”. They go on to say it is not due to market forces or the changing media landscape, but because of the influence big tech has over the CRTC and the government.

“True community television is locally produced for the benefit of the community – not shareholders. Community TV is necessarily not-for-profit because its value generation comes in the form of strengthening communities, democratic norms, and local voices,” states the letter. “Big cable is inherently unable to fulfill this mandate because, for them, shareholder demands and profits will always come before the needs of communities.

“Through incremental steps, the CRTC has allowed big cable to almost entirely take-over the market share of community TV. Without a clear definition of community TV as not-for-profit, locally produced TV content and local voices are at risk of being permanently silenced, and the trend of centralized voices dominating our political and social discourse will be further accelerated.”

They are asking that the NDP’s support for Bill C-10 be “contingent on the inclusion of a definition of community TV as being not-for-profit, or, at very least independent”. Should this bill be passed, they feel the “long history of community media” will be just that, history.

Hogarth said if the bill is passed in its current form, it will not address and protect community television, but it will protect such large entities as Rogers. There are approximately only 10 community television stations left in Canada, and Hogarth and Watt want to see these stations protected, and not left hanging in the wind.

“The way they’re speeding this bill along, it feels is for the benefit of these already big media conglomerates who are crying victim in comparison to the likes of Facebook and whatnot,” said Hogarth. “They’re saying, ‘please protect us as tiny, little Canadian entities that you rely on’. But, they’re being so hypocritical.

“If this bill passes as is, it doesn’t protect the little guy in Canada that is the true voice of the community. The very thing that they claim is happening to them, they are doing to the smaller players and true grassroots voices. It’s scary to us to see that level of hypocrisy.”

The Courier reached out to the federal Liberal party for comment, but did not receive a response.

sarigreen@stcroixcourier.ca