On the slippery slope to thought control

Two recent rulings by out of control council are a dangerous encroachment on freedom

Affaire Jan Wong et The Globe and Mail



Nothing in any nanny-state society is as insidious as thought control. It puts the lie to platitudes mouthed by politicians about freedom. Two of the Quebec Press Council's latest decisions are cause for serious concern.

The very fact of a society organizing a body overseeing expression and opinion is in itself offensive to liberty. There are sufficient protections in our libel and slander laws to make such a body totally unwarranted.

But when that body adopts as its goal the protection of the collective from criticism by individuals, and condemns opinions as being outside accepted "parameters," we have a dangerous encroachment on freedom. It matters little that the press council has no enforcement powers, or that it is set up by media organizations as a self-regulating body. That makes it all the worse. For a free press must not be regulated. That encourages self-censorship and promotes a stifling political correctness. Worst of all, it affects people's perceptions of what is "acceptable" to say, and what is not. And as the old political saw says, "Perception is everything."


Six weeks ago, the press council condemned a column by the National Post's Barbara Kay that criticized the participation of political and union leaders in a rally in August 2006, that turned into a pro-Hezbollah demonstration. Look at the Kafkaesque words in the council's decision. It said Kay's conclusions aroused "undue provocation" and made "generalizations suitable to perpetuate prejudices."

All this because she dared to question the motivations of those who led a hate-filled march and encouraged it with their own words. Former PQ leader Andre Boisclair and Quebec labour federation president Henri Masse were seen smiling in front of a defiled Jewish prayer shawl. Addressing the crowd, replete with Hezbollah flags, Boisclair said, "The Quebec I see marching in front of me is the Quebec that inspires me."

The council had not a word to say about those provocations that truly perpetuate prejudices. It went on to state Kay did not put the facts in "context" and used them to support her point of view. Surely, questioning "contexts" is the very heart of opinion in a free press. Competing views on contexts must be fought out without restraint of societal pressure. But, apparently, not in Quebec. Here, collectives define the appropriate "context."

Last week, the council took another journalist to task, using similar language. It condemned the Globe and Mail's Jan Wong for a controversial article she wrote last September in which she suggested the reason for the Dawson College shootings carried out by Kimveer Gill - as well as Valery Fabrikant's Concordia rampage and Marc Lepine's Ecole Polytechnique massacre - might stem from alienation felt by Quebec immigrants because of failure to integrate into the "pure-laine" world. Once again, the council objected to a journalist's formulation of an opinion, based on her interpretation of the facts, because it painted Quebec society in a negative light. It upheld a complaint by the Societe Saint-Jean-Baptiste that Wong left the impression Quebec society is preoccupied with racial purity.

Personally, I agree with Kay on this and many other issues, and disagree with Wong. But that is not the point. The only way to make sure people you agree with are heard is to support the rights of people you don't agree with. But instead of upholding the widest possible space for expression of opinion, the press council put the weight of its professional and moral authority on the side of keeping journalists with unpopular ideas within "proper" limits.

In these decisions, the council seems to have gone completely out of control. And Quebec, without putting too fine a point on it, already has experience in language control with Bill 101. It is not out of the question that decisions like this from the council - particularly in Quebec's current furor over "reasonable accommodation" - might lead to calls for legislative restrictions.

One can see how far this kind of feeling can potentially go by looking at the restrictions on freedom of expression imposed in Turkey in the name of protecting national values. Article 301 of that country's penal code makes it a criminal offence to attack "Turkishness." Just last Friday, Turkey's largest telecommunications services provider, Turk Telekom, blocked access to YouTube following a court decision deeming videos on the site were insulting to the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, and the Turkish people.

The law was pushed through in 2005 by the nationalist Unity of Jurists group. According to PEN International, more than 70 writers, publishers, and journalists are currently under indictment or standing trial under this law. The law itself is troubling, but just as troubling is the public atmosphere of hate it stirs up.

Quebec is not exempt from that kind of mentality. In its latest decisions, the press council risks pandering to nationalist fervour and discouraging dissent. But perhaps its most grievous insult to Quebecers is that it does not trust us with the ability to chose. We are to be educated like children on the "right path."

Perhaps it is time for the council to look to France for direction. Let it heed the words of newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy, who said at the time of the Mohammed cartoon riots, "I prefer an excess of caricature to an excess of censorship." In the final analysis, liberty, in its most basic sense, lies in the inalienable right of the people to choose.

***
Beryl Wajsman is president of the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal.
Press council decision: To read the Quebec Press Council decisions on the Jan Wong case, go to:
montrealgazette.com

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Beryl Wajsman is president of the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal www.iapm.ca, publisher of BARRICADES Magazine www.barricades.ca, and host of Corus Radio’s “The Last Angry Man” on the New 940Montreal. He can be reached at: info@iapm.ca.





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