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Quebec media say new bill to protect politicians is excessive, harms free speech

Quebec newsroom leaders are calling out a new bill to protect politicians from abuse, saying the legislation is excessive and potentially stifling to democratic debate. Quebec Municipal Affairs Minister Andrée Laforest makes an announcement in Scott, Que., Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

MONTREAL — Quebec newsroom leaders are calling out a new bill to protect politicians from abuse, saying the legislation is excessive and potentially stifling to democratic debate.

Media companies — including The Canadian Press, La Presse, Quebecor, and CBC — said Thursday in an open letter to the government that the bill contains measures that “compromise the freedom of expression of citizens and the media.”

Tabled in April by Municipal Affairs Minister Andrée Laforest, the legislation aims to protect elected officials from threats and intimidation that cause them to "reasonably fear for their integrity or safety," and includes fines between $500 and $1,500. 

The bill is the government's response to a wave of resignations from elected officials. A recent survey by Quebec's union of municipalities found that 74 per cent of elected municipal leaders reported having experienced harassment and intimidation, and that 741 out of 8,000 had quit since the 2021 election. 

Laforest's bill says a person could be fined if they threaten, intimidate or harass a municipal or provincial politician in a way that prevents them from doing their job or makes them worry for their safety.

However, media companies say the bill is too broad and allows elected leaders to potentially silence unfavourable criticism from both citizens and journalists.

The legislation would also authorize politicians subjected to comments or actions that "unduly hinder the exercise of their functions or invade their privacy" to apply to the Superior Court for an injunction. The court could then order the offender to stop communicating with the politician or to refrain from going to their office or acting in a way that would hinder their work.

But the bill doesn't define exactly what is problematic interference in officials' right to privacy or in the exercise of their duties, an omission that opens the door to limits on free expression, the letter says.

"This would make life easier for elected officials, and cities, who would like to intimidate individuals and organizations that do not have the means to defend themselves," the letter reads. "The mere existence of this new legislative tool would be likely to have a chilling effect on citizen and media speech."

Lydia Khelil, spokesperson for civil liberties group Ligue des droits et libertés, says the bill as written doesn't make the distinction between threats and intimidation and social disputes that are part of democratic debate.

“It will create new problems in terms of freedom of expression," Khelil said.

The Quebec government insists it isn't trying to curtail the rights of citizen or press freedoms. Élodie Masson, a spokesperson for Laforest’s office, says the bill is needed to protect Quebec's democratic institutions amid the rise in resignations among municipal councillors. 

"The aim is not to restrict comments or criticism, but to encourage healthy debate and exchange in a civilized manner," Masson said Thursday.

Citing a rising number of threats to officials — often from repeat offenders — RCMP commissioner Mike Duheme has called on the federal government to draft new legislation to make it easier for police to pursue charges. One challenge, Duheme said, is that problematic behaviour often fails to meet the Criminal Code threshold for laying a charge of uttering threats.

Pearl Eliadis, associate professor at McGill University's Max Bell School of Public Policy, says a balance needs to be struck between the public’s right to debate and leaders’ safety. 

“We are in a bit of a democratic crisis in terms of being able to attract good people to politics,” she said. 

“It’s a double-edged sword because people who are more in the public eye and more likely to be subject to scrutiny are also more susceptible to personal attacks, harassment and intimidation,” she said. “I do think there’s a legitimate, pressing and substantial need to make sure that people who go into politics are not subject to this kind of behaviour.”

However, Eliadis said that references to free speech and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms are noticeably absent from the bill.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 16, 2024.

Joe Bongiorno, The Canadian Press

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