WATCH: The Harper Government wants to amend Canada’s copyright laws so political parties can freely use news footage without permission in political ads. Opponents say this will degrade the integrity of the press. Tom Clark explains.
OTTAWA – Heritage Minister Shelly Glover suggests news organizations who object to political parties using their content for free in attack ads are trying to “censor” their own content.
Internal documents show the federal Conservatives are seeking to change Canada’s copyright act to allow political parties to freely use journalistic content in political advertisements without permission.
Glover defended the move in the House of Commons Thursday by arguing that this would ensure politicians are held “accountable” for what they say in public settings.
“There is a public interest in ensuring that politicians are accountable for their actions and accountable for what they say in public settings,” Glover said during Question Period.
“Major television networks should not have the ability to censor what can and cannot be broadcast to Canadians. We believe that this has always been protected under the fair dealing provisions of the law and if greater certainty is necessary, we will provide it.”
The “fair dealing” provisions of Canada’s copyright law allow for the use of content for which one doesn’t hold the copyright under certain conditions, such as research, private study, news reporting, criticism, and review.
Liberal MP Ralph Goodale accused the Conservatives of degrading the “integrity and freedom” of the press.
“Journalists will have their news content taken, they would say stolen, without permission or remuneration and then they will be forced to broadcast their own stuff in partisan attack ads,” Goodale said.
“It is expropriation without compensation. It degrades integrity and freedom of the press. Why does the government behave like such a tin-pot banana republic?”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper echoed Glover when asked about his cabinet’s plan.
“I’m not going to speculate on future decisions. I will simply say this: that as political people, who conduct much of our business in public, we fully expect that we will be held publicly accountable for the statements we make in public. That’s what I think we’d all expect, that’s certainly the standard that I’m held to,” he told reporters in Toronto.
“It’s our view that the law is already such that this material is publicly available and circulates freely for public commentary. I think that’s the public’s expectation. We think that’s the way the law already is and obviously I would be very concerned about any proposal that would attempt to censor or block that kind of information from the public.”
Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who holds the Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law, said in a blog post that the law under fair dealing may already cover some of the uses and that copyright law should not be used to stifle political speech.
But he cautioned against the Conservatives’ plans, saying the proposal is a narrow one that doesn’t apply equally to all Canadians for fair use.
“The creation of an exception that only allows a select few to benefit is not a provision that can be defended on freedom of political speech grounds,” Geist wrote.
“We are all entitled to exercise our political speech rights. A new exception that guards against copyright stifling such speech should apply to all.”
A document obtained by Global News suggests Harper’s cabinet is planning on changing the Copyright Act to allow “political actors” to use news content in their political advertisements “without being bound by rights holder authorization.”
The proposed exemption “would allow free use of ‘news’ content in political advertisements intended to promote or oppose a politician or political party, or a position on a related issue,” the document says.
Cabinet authority is needed to create the exception in order to include the Copyright Act amendment in the government’s Budget Implementation Act, it says.
The document acknowledges the proposal will likely face opposition.
“Creators of news … will vehemently claim that their work is being unfairly targeted for the benefit of political parties,” it says.
It also notes that during an election, broadcasters must provide a certain amount of advertising time to political parties.
This is not the first time the Tories have courted controversy with Canada’s copyright laws for using news footage without permission in political attack ads.
Liberal MP Stephane Dion filed a complaint with Elections Canada last year saying the Conservative Party of Canada used footage owned by the Huffington Post and CTV in an attack ad against Justin Trudeau.
In the letter, Dion said “unauthorized use of copyrighted materials” was in violation of Canadian copyright laws and “may also be non-compliant with the Canadian Elections Act.”
More recently Canada’s major broadcasters, including Global News, CBC, and CTV, sent a letter in May to all federal and provincial parties warning they wouldn’t tolerate the unauthorized use of copyrighted material in political advertisements.
“As news organizations, the use of our content in political advertisements without our express consent may compromise our journalistic independence and call into question our journalistic ethics, standards and objectivity,” the broadcasters wrote.
With files from Andrew Russell
WATCH: Opposition MPs hammered the government Thursday over a Global News report that they plan to amend copyright laws to allow news content to be used in political ads