2023 marked the 30th anniversary of the United Nations World Press Freedom Day. It was also the year that witnessed the worst press freedom globally since the Cold War. Last year a record number of 363 journalists were detained in 30 different countries. The threats to the free circulation of media, news and information are increasing wildly, with more news being shared digitally than ever. Surges in disinformation, technological iterations including new deep fake programs and emerging socio-political contexts, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, are vastly altering the landscape of free press in 2023. A lack of content monitoring online and on social media apps is also a major point of contention between the existence of free independent press and speech, and the perpetration of hate speech and digital violence. This online abuse is exacerbated by current events, with the prime example being the polarizing Israel-Hamas War.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked sectors of free press is that of student journalists and their often extremely censored relationship to university officials and their peers. Student journalism is now more crucial than ever as the demands for the sharing of news and opinion at the university level have risen over the past few years. However, this increased interest in student reporting is not met with proper press freedom and protection for student journalists seeking to provide platforms for news exchange at their universities. The hindrances faced by student-run publications are large in quantity and even more complex to eliminate when so many of these organizations are directly funded by the university. Universities often block stories or alter the editing of the content to boost their own image, which results in biased and partially censored information being released to the school community and the restriction of young journalists’ right to transfer information freely and without fear of repression. Data compiled from 2020 by the Student Press Law Center found that one of the most concerning trends for student journalism is the increasing number of cases of censorship by university officials for content due to its “political nature.”
In the 21st century, educational institutions are becoming “more obsessed with ‘protecting the brand’ than they’ve ever been before, and journalism as an industry is weaker and less able to defend itself than ever before,” said Frank LoMonte, a lawyer and journalist that served for nearly a decade at the Student Press Law Center. What the collision of these two major indices results in, is increasing threats faced by student journalists and the clogged flow of information to the university community as students consuming this media are receiving altered and biased content. Free press in a student newspaper is an obligation to the truth without alteration or bias from any external sources. This principle in practice means that student journalism must remain an independent body of information, separate from the university whose namesake it may take.
Similar incidents have happened on McGill campus. On March 5, 2012, the Daily Publications Society (DPS) – publishers of the Daily and Le Délit – received threats of legal action from the McGill lawyers in regard to the report of the Development and Alumni Relations documents that were leaked online. The intimidation tactic prevailed as DPS had to concede. In an article discussing the instance, editors wrote that “By threatening student-run media with legal action, this University has yet again used its financial power in order to control student voices on campus.” Student press freedom of expression has been an ongoing debate, and it is important for student journalists and authorities to have a clear and open conversation, and to work together.
Student journalists’ work also represents the local news in campus community. Local news plays a crucial part in communities and societies. They connect neighbourhoods with one another, promote local events, and share local issues, therefore making the community well informed and united. Their work will have a direct impact in shaping public opinion, while also holding authority accountable. Student journalism uplifts and validates young voices, connecting students with other students, the university, the local community, and the greater global one.
The passing of Bill C-18 – more commonly known as the Online News Act – sought to support Canadian news organizations through providing increased compensation for the presence of their content on digital and social media platforms. However this bill was not met without discourse and opposition; the impacts of which are altering the landscape of free press in Canada. Media moguls Google and Meta began blocking Canadian news corporations on their social media platforms in response to a tenant of the bill which would enforce payments by those companies to Canadian media corporations. The impacts of this censorship by major technology companies were colossal, and exposed the extent to which technological companies have control over independent media. This censorship was denounced by SSMU and the Daily for the implications it would have on student journalism at McGill.
Student journalists aiming to cover local news should be encouraged, as they do it out of love for the communities and societies of which themselves are a part. With the present uncertain environment of free press, it is important for institutions and publications to support student journalists in preserving a free press and working towards spreading the truth. It is only when the next generation of reporters are trained and able to produce quality work with those in positions of power respecting their right to a free press, that we can truly call this pillar of institutional strength “secure.”