EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include reference to a press release issued by the group pursuing the lawsuit against Global News that was issued after publication.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says it is “unacceptable” that someone used a community WeChat group run on behalf of one of his cabinet ministers to crowdsource a lawsuit against a Canadian journalist for exposing a Chinese state-backed effort to stockpile personal protective gear.
During a daily briefing with journalists on Tuesday, Trudeau was asked about a report published on a Vancouver local news website called The Breaker on Monday.
That report says the WeChat group operated by staff of Digital Governance Minister Joyce Murray has allowed for the posting and spread of a message by someone attempting to crowdsource money for a lawsuit against a Global News journalist.
“This is the first I hear of this situation and we’ll be following up,” Trudeau said.
Global News first reached out to the Prime Minister’s Office at 11:50 p.m. ET on Monday asking for comment about the report and was told at 9:18 a.m. that the office was looking into it.
Trudeau’s press conference began at 11:15 a.m.
Trudeau later said when questioned about the matter by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer that the post was unacceptable and that the individual who posted it has been barred from the minister’s WeChat group.
“As a party and a government we value the important work that journalists do right across the country. Attacking the integrity of hard-working journalists is absolutely unacceptable,” he said.
“The individual who posted this link on the particular group is no longer a member of the group and is not affiliated with the electoral district association in question.”
A spokesperson for Murray also told Global News the individual who made the post is no longer allowed in the group.
“The views shared by participants do not necessarily reflect those of Minister Murray. This particular post was unacceptable and in no way reflects the minister’s views,” said Sarah McMaster, director of communications for the minister, adding that the platform is used to “engage members of the Chinese-Canadian community.”
“Participation in this group is guided by posted guidelines and a disclaimer. In this case, guidelines were not followed and the individual who posted is no longer in this group.”
Last month, an investigation by Global News journalist Sam Cooper revealed that China launched a state-level operation in January to corner the global market on personal protective equipment even as it was publicly insisting that the coronavirus outbreak spreading through its population was under control.
The virus has since infected more than 5.5 million people globally and killed 346,700.
In Canada, the chief public health officer said on Tuesday there are now 85,998 cases and 6,566 deaths.
“Global News is committed to following journalistic standards and practices, and we stand by Sam Cooper’s article and support his ongoing investigation in a matter of significant public interest,” a spokesperson for Global News said.
“We are increasingly concerned by what appears to be an organized effort to discredit our journalist, our reporting and our news division as we investigate the serious issue of foreign influence in Canadian affairs.”
In a press release on May 27, a group calling itself the Maple Leafs Anti-Racism Actions Association said it is pursuing the lawsuit against Global News because it feels that the report on the stockpiling “maligned” Chinese-Canadians.
“We are not attacking the integrity of Mr. Sam Cooper or calling him a racist,” the press release said. “We expect that some Canadians of Chinese heritage may not feel the same way as we do towards Mr. Cooper’s report.”
It continued: “We are committed to the Canadian value of freedom of the press and we regret that we have to take this action to protect our community’s image and integrity.”
The release also said the group apologizes to Murray.
“We offer our apologies to Minister Joyce Murray for the inadvertent action of one of our overly enthusiastic members who posted a fundraising appeal in a WeChat group of Ms. Murray’s supporters. But her actions demonstrated her deep concern about Mr. Cooper’s unbalanced article and her feeling is shared by all of us at MLARA.”
Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat who served in China and is now a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, says there is a concerted effort underway by Chinese state-backed actors like the United Front to discredit international critics or those asking questions about the regime.
He called it “lawfare” — trying to weaponize the law to silence scrutiny.
“There is an element of lawfare here, so the idea that the libel insurance of media companies would have their premiums going up if they’re subject to nuisance lawsuits,” he said.
“So far we don’t seem to be seeing that as having a dampening effect on the way the mainstream English and French media report on China.”
Conservative leadership candidate Peter MacKay called the case the latest in what appears to be a pattern of behaviour by the government.
“Whether it’s the health minister dismissing questions critical of China, the foreign minister refusing to mention Taiwan by name, and now the digital minister’s social media accounts promoting lawsuits against Canadian journalists, a troubling pattern has emerged from this Liberal government,” he said.
“We must stand firm in the face of aggression from the Chinese government and stand up for our values of democracy, the rule of law and freedom of the press.”
Another Conservative leadership candidate, Erin O’Toole, said such attempts must be handled forcefully by the government.
“It’s clear to everyone but Justin Trudeau that the Chinese regime is attempting to limit freedom of the press in Canada,” he said.
“Our government must stand up to this intimidation and certainly not facilitate it.”
China has threatened countries that have called for probes specifically into its handling of the origins of the global crisis, and the Canadian government has faced criticism for saying little.
While Trudeau has said there will be questions “particularly” for China as the world grapples with an eventual post-pandemic review, Health Minister Patty Hajdu criticized a journalist for asking whether the government believes Chinese coronavirus reporting data can be trusted.
She accused the journalist of “feeding into conspiracy theories” and has since made the argument that Canada is among many countries who have struggled to get accurate pictures of the spread of the virus.
Questions about whether the response to the pandemic was fast enough have continued to focus on China. Many argue the regime’s lack of transparency and early muzzling of scientists who tried to raise alarm bells cost the world precious time.
That the Chinese state was actually stockpiling vital personal protective equipment while downplaying the crisis has factored heavily into those criticisms even as Chinese diplomats use social media to spread propaganda and disinformation about the virus.
Cong Peiwu, China’s ambassador to Canada, insisted instead in an interview with Global News that “China is a victim” of disinformation about the origins of the pandemic.