Resolving Russia Today

I have been pretty clear about concerns I have with Canada’s plans to regulate internet content. I generally don’t like the idea of a government agency telling me what is appropriate for me to see or read or hear.

I have suggested that we may be better off investing in digital skills training for kids from the youngest age, teaching critical thinking, and digital literacy, to better prepare the country for life in this information-rich era.

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on February 28, the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion saying:

That, given the Russian Federation’s unprovoked and unjustified attack on Ukraine, the House:

(d) Call upon the Government of Canada, and all parties in the House of Commons, to support:

(iii) The issuing of an order of general application directing the CRTC to a new broadcasting policy that would remove state-controlled broadcasters that spread disinformation and propaganda from the CRTC’s list of non-Canadian programming services and stations authorized for distribution, effectively removing Russia Today (RT) from Canadian airwaves;

In a postscript to my March 1 blog post, I focused on the line from the Parliamentary motion (“An order of general application directing the CRTC to a new broadcasting policy”) as being somewhat different from what what was set out in the Order-in-Council direction sent to the CRTC.

In the Order in Council, Cabinet “requests that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission hold a hearing, which is to be initiated no later than one day after the effective date of this Order, to determine whether RT and RT France should be removed from the List of non-Canadian programming services and stations authorized for distribution and make a report as soon as feasible, but no later than two weeks after the effective date of this Order.”

In Broadcasting Notice of Consultation CRTC 2022-58, the CRTC set out a preliminary view:

  1. In light of the concerns raised by the Government of Canada and the public with respect to the continued appropriateness of the distribution of RT and RT France (collectively RT) in Canada, the Commission is of the preliminary view that RT’s programming may not be consistent with the Commission’s broadcasting regulations, in particular, the abusive comment provisions such as those set out in section 5 of the Television Broadcasting Regulations, 1987:

    5 (1) A licensee shall not broadcast
    (b) any abusive comment or abusive pictorial representation that, when taken in context, tends to or is likely to expose an individual or a group or class of individuals to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age or mental or physical disability;

  2. The Commission notes that similar provisions are also found in the Discretionary Services Regulations (section 3), and the Broadcasting Distribution Regulations (section 8(1)).
  3. The Commission notes, as well, that the policy objectives set out in subsection 3(1) of the Act apply with respect to all programming broadcast in Canada, whether provided by Canadian or non-Canadian services. Notably, subparagraph 3(1)(d)(i) requires that the broadcasting system of Canada should serve to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada. The Commission is concerned that the programming broadcast on RT is antithetical to the policy objectives and does not serve the public interest.

In its submission, Rogers said that in pulling RT from its channel lineup, “we relied on the fact that RT is owned by a state against which Canada has placed sanctions and related measures.”

Notably, Rogers did not make any comment about the nature of the programming content, whether it is truthful or propaganda, news or commentary. The approach set out by Rogers avoids the need to make a judgment call on whether RT crossed the line in violating Section 5 of the Broadcasting regulations. The test is simple: is the programming service owned or controlled by a state or individual that is subject to Canadian government sanctions.

In our view, it would be appropriate for the Commission to also consider removing from the List of non-Canadian programming services authorized for distribution (the List) any programming service that is either owned or controlled by a state that is subject to Canadian sanctions or by any specific individual or entity identified in Schedule 1 to the Special Economic Measures (Russia) Regulations. This could include, for example, Channel One Russia and RTR Planeta.

I have expressed concerns about government agencies adjudicating whether “programming broadcast… is antithetical to the policy objectives and does not serve the public interest.” The submission by Ethnic Channels Group says “The potential for government control of content is and should be concerning to Canadians – and we know the CRTC itself is well-aware of its responsibilities regarding the freedom of expression and access to content.”

In my view, a part of safeguarding, enriching and strengthening the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada involves vigorous disagreement, dissent, debate. We have a right to be wrong. Our cultural, political, social and economic fabric includes certain freedoms set out in the Charter, including a fundamental “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication”.

That creates a significant challenge for the CRTC. How would the Commission assess whether “programming broadcast on RT is antithetical to the policy objectives and does not serve the public interest”, and conduct that assessment in such a short time period? The government is still considering whether to introduce a bill to give such a responsibility for adjudicating such content online. Should the CRTC be pronouncing whether content is “antithetical to the policy objectives” under such a tight timetable?

Using the test set out by Rogers, the CRTC can side-step that challenge completely. We delist all programming services owned or controlled by a state or individual subject to Canadian government sanctions. It is an elegant and nuanced means for the CRTC to resolve Russia Today challenge from Cabinet, and be responsive to the original resolution passed in the House of Commons.

2 thoughts on “Resolving Russia Today”

  1. I was waiting for someone to point out the disconnect between the CRTC’s reference to the statutory criterion on abusive comment (on fairly specific grounds, i.e. national origin), as opposed to Rogers’ statement about airing feeds from countries under Canadian sanctions. Honestly, I don’t see how the Rogers argument can be considered by the CRTC at all. I agree with you, the CRTC should go very lightly on adjudicating its “abusive comments” powers and I suspect they were not thrilled to have this hot potato handed to them by the government. If there is a case for abusive comment, it should be made. If there is a case for sanctions, the government not the CRTC should make them or amend the statute.

  2. Fabrice Christen

    One has to wonder if this is not a dangerous direction for democracy. By side-stepping a proper assessment process and relying instead on government sanctions, broadcasters effectively toe the government line of sanctions and may limit access to content based on the government’s like and dislikes. If the government turns out to have a strong political or ideological drift, then the broadcasters will be constrained due to that drift. This does not bode well for a free and independent press. And if you think a strong political drift is not likely to happen in Canada, just look at our neighbors south of the border.

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