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- Rights and responsabilities of the Press (version imprimable)
In order to inform the public of the events and issues of the day, to give accurate expression to political, social and cultural currents, and to promote widespread and open debate, it is essential that the media have unhindered access to sources of information. Freedom of the press is an indispensable precondition for informed public opinion and debate.
The media and journalists must be free to gather information about facts and events without hindrance, or threat or reprisal. In deciding what to cover and how to cover it, they must be free to exercise their editorial judgment. Outside influence or interference in this process may well constitute a form of censorship.
Governments have an obligation to make their administrations as transparent as possible. Public institutions and authorities have a duty to respect this democratic principle, and to facilitate access to public documents.
That the state exists to serve its citizens and is accountable to them is a principle recognized both by Quebec (in its adoption of An Act Respecting Access to Documents Held by Public Bodies and the Protection of Personal Information, RSQ, 1982), and by Ottawa, in its Access to Information Act, adopted in 1983. Citizens have the inalienable right to be fully informed about the actions and decisions taken by their governments and public officials.
When a government, citing the public interest, forbids or delays publication of information, it should not assume that the press will agree with it about where the public interest lies. Governments should not confuse their own interests with the public interest.
It is essential that the press have access to information regarding the government and all public institutions and organizations. Any hindrance, whether judicial or administrative, undermines the freedom of the press and the legitimate right of citizens to be informed of the events, actions and decisions that affect them.
The administration of justice is a public matter and it must be conducted openly, despite the personal and sensitive nature of some cases.
Courts and tribunals should exclude the public only in the most exceptional of circumstances, and even in such cases, the press should be present in order to report on matters of public interest and the administration of justice. Separate rules of access for the press and the public should be established by legislation that would, at the same time, better balance the right to personal privacy, the open and public administration of justice and the right of the public to be informed on matters of public interest.
Freedom of the press and the public’s right to know depend on journalists’ right to keep certain sources of information confidential.
Courts and quasi-judicial bodies may compel journalists to testify, reveal their sources and surrender documents; there are no laws of privilege affording the Quebec media any protection in this regard. The Press Council recognizes that journalists have the right to remain silent. It is the duty of the judiciary to use great discretion and discernment in weighing the competing interests involved. The council believes that before compelling journalists to co-operate with courts or tribunals, the judiciary should ensure that the confidential information the journalist has is indispensable to the resolution of the case and that there is no other reasonable way to obtain it.
It should be emphasized that what is necessary to protect is the exercise of journalism, not journalists as individuals. Freedom of the press and the public’s right to information require that journalistic activity, that is, the gathering, processing and transmission of information, as well as the conditions necessary to practice journalism, be protected to ensure the public¹s access to comprehensive information on all matters of public interest.
Polls are a means of gathering and analyzing information to discover or delineate trends in public opinion. Attempting to block or restrain their publication or broadcast, even during an election or referendum campaign, constitutes a constraint on the free circulation of information, the right of the public to information and the freedom of the press.
It is paramount, however, that the quality of the data collected by polls be verifiable. In order to be able to draw sound and independent conclusions from poll results, the public must be provided with the necessary background information: the identity of the sponsors and authors, the nature of the sampling taken, the method of statistical analysis, the margin of error, etc.
Advertisers are free to choose which media to use. At the same time, taxpayer-funded public bodies and institutions have no right to place or withhold advertising in order to reward, punish or influence media outlets for their ideological or political stances, or on the basis of whether their coverage has served those institutions’ interests. Private businesses, institutions, groups and individuals should also refrain from using their advertising in such ways.
The withholding of advertising as a pressure tactic to influence coverage or provoke self-censorship by one or more press outlets is a violation of press freedom and thus, of the public’s right to information.