In late 2009, Dominique Payette, a former journalist and now professor at the Université de Montreal, was mandated by Quebec Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre to study strategies for strengthening the province’s media in the face of new information technologies. Her final report, presented this month, went far beyond that mandate. In fact, it is the greatest affront to free expression in Quebec since the creation of the province’s infamous anti-English language laws. It deserves a resounding rejection.
Among her 51 recommendations are the following: mandatory membership by all news organizations in the Quebec Press Council; use of the state’s spending power to coerce membership in this council by threatening to withdraw provincial advertising from all those that will not submit; vesting the council (now a voluntary organization with only moral suasion) with sanction power; controlling who is called a “journalist” by organizing a professional corporation to control admission, and demanding language testing for all those seeking such accreditation. “Accredited” journalists would be given preference over non-accredited journalists on matters ranging from government information flow to protection of sources.
The report follows in the same spirit that, over the past 40 years, has brought more and more of Quebecers’ lives under statist control.
In this regard, the title of Ms. Payette’s report — “Information in Quebec: a public interest” — is telling. Quebec’s various government have used the label “public interest” to justify all manner of prohibitive legislation. But Ms. Payette’s ideas would be especially dangerous. Quebec City would have the power to silence any opposing voice simply by influencing the “professional corporation” that Ms. Payette believes should control the “accreditation” process.
Even now, without the expanded powers imagined by Ms. Payette, the Quebec Press Council has a reputation for investigating far-fetched complaints launched by thin-skinned cultural nationalists. It is hardly an oracle of objectivity, and has done serious damage to public discourse merely through its role as a clearing house for the most militant elements within Quebec society.
The idea of language testing for accreditation would surely put much of the ethnic press out of business. That’s the point of the ethnic press: to communicate with those who have not yet mastered our two official languages. It is doubtful whether even French reporters could pass the government’s onerous French grammar tests.
We cannot blame Ms. Payette alone. In her mandate, Minister St-Pierre justified this study on the basis of the “general crises of media in industrialized countries.” Really? What crises? Too much free expression? Is there a fear that brave and enterprising writers may actually put dents into the revisionist nationalist narrative that has fueled Quebec’s wounded-pride culture these past four decades? Is there a fear that too much truth shall out?
Of course, we needn’t be surprised: This is the same minister who recently encouraged Quebecers to snitch on each other in order to enforce the province’s language laws.
Even some journalists are jumping on the censorship bandwagon. This includes voices within the Federation des journalistes professionals du Quebec (FJPQ) — a venerable lobby group that is supposed to support freedom of the press. In speaking to some members of the FJPQ, I was told that there were “too many” people calling themselves journalists and trying to get into press conferences and legislative press galleries.
It is sad that in America, online publications such as Politico, the Huffington Post and Slate now are having their writers celebrated; yet here they are being marginalized as unwanted interlopers.
Since the American and French revolutions writers and journalists have been recognized as the fourth estate of government. For centuries, those concerns of the people that the legislature will not address and that the judiciary cannot address and that the executive is too busy to address, have been championed by a free and unfettered press. By controlling who can call himself or herself a journalist, you take the first step to the destruction of freedom. Accrediting writers is like accrediting who can stand for public office.
Papineau and Lafontaine, Cartier and Laurier, Godbout and Harvey, Trudeau and Levesque: All were writers at one time in their careers. They would have understood the stakes instantly — and must be turning in their graves at the thought that the suggestions in Ms. Payette’s report might attain the force of law.
Beryl Wajsman is President of the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal, and editor of The Suburban newspaper.