The Strange Censorship Ruling on Russia Today

Screen Shot, not from Russia Today

March 17, 2022

Yesterday the CRTC did what the federal cabinet wanted it to do: ban the Russian propaganda channels Russia Today and Russia France from Canadian cable TV.

It was all a bit anti-climatic: the cable companies themselves had already dropped the channels. As unlicensed non-Canadian services, channels like RT are broadcast in Canada at the pleasure of the cable companies with the CRTC rubber stamping those business decisions.

That didn’t stop Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez from asking the Commission to ban RT anyway.

I’ve never watched RT —you still can on the Internet, which the CRTC doesn’t regulate as yet—  because I trust others who tell me it’s propaganda; because I refuse to give RT my clicks or IP address; and because I have a great deal of confidence that viewing their propaganda would make my (partly) Ukrainian blood boil (the surname on my father’s birth certificate is Prilowsky).

What’s strange about this act of censorship —for that is what it is— is how little flak the government and the CRTC have taken over it, something you would expect would rile up the free speech ultras who see censorship under every regulator’s bed.

The tricky legal problem for the CRTC is that the Broadcasting Act was explicitly drafted to protect freedom of expression in its purpose clause. Quite sensibly, a number of long standing regulations under the Act allow censorship of licensed channels, which RT is not, for a  limited number of good reasons including “false or misleading news” and “abusive comment that is likely to expose a class of individuals to hatred or contempt on the basis of national or ethnic origin.” The CRTC nimbly skipped around the fact that this censorship mandate doesn’t apply to unlicensed channels by relying on the Commission’s residual responsibility to govern broadcasting “in the public interest,” which it has.

A second thing that is strange about this act of censorship is that no one put any direct evidence of abusive comment by RT directed at the Ukraine or Ukrainians before the Commissioners. RT itself was not made a party to the CRTC proceeding and did not intervene. It’s difficult to tell from the written decision if the Commissioners streamed RT over the web, but if they did they weren’t saying. Details of RT programming put on the record by various interveners either weren’t current or belonged to other Russian state propaganda outlets, not RT.

Reading the ruling, the CRTC uses words like “negative” where you would expect “abusive” and “could expose” where you would expect “does.” 

Interesting point: no one including the CRTC argued RT was “false or misleading news.”

More than one intervenor pointed to the federal government’s power —not the CRTC’s authority or responsibility— to get at RT by sanctioning its officials, a wonderful idea that would put the responsibility where it lies, on the federal government. Because it sure didn’t belong to the CRTC.

Published by

Howard Law

I am retired staff of Unifor, the union representing 300,000 Canadians in twenty different sectors of the economy, including 10,000 journalists and media workers. As the former Director of the Media Sector and as an unapologetic cultural nationalist, I have an abiding passion for public policy in Canadian media.

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