Canada has achieved dubious distinction as a target for Reporters Without Borders, an international organization dedicated to “defending press freedom around the world.”
Traditionally considered a tolerant, progressive nation, Canada has a turbulent but proud history of peacekeeping around the world with a reputation for compassion, not hegemony.
But the new Conservative government in Ottawa has its chips down in Afghanistan.
Fifteen Canadian soldiers have been killed in action since 2002, when Canada joined the occupation of Afghanistan by US-led forces, following the ouster of the Taliban regime.
With Canada’s increased role in the war-torn country, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is being forced to put some policy cards on the table.
First came the question of the Peace Tower flag.
Harper repealed an earlier decision from the former Liberal government and decided Canada’s most prominent flag would not be lowered to half-mast every time an individual soldier is killed.
“It is not a simple question,” Harper told the Globe and Mail.
“The Minister of National Defence (Gordon O’Connor) who is a 30-year veteran of the military, has taken a decision, a decision which tries to balance the interests of public honour and private grief and which tries to make sure that all deaths are treated and honoured.”
On April 22 four Canadian soldiers were killed in Kandahar, prompting O’Connor to impose a media ban on the return of their caskets to Fort Trenton, Ontario.
The media had access to ceremonies in Afghanistan before the caskets were loaded onto a plane, he told the Globe and Mail.
“Our policy, to be fair to everyone from now into the future, is that at the place of origin, if there are press there, they can have access, and if there’s press — depending upon the wishes of the family — they can be at the funeral or the ceremonies honouring the dead.
“But when the bodies arrive in Trenton, it will be a private affair where those families grieve for the first time coming face to face with the bodies of their loved ones.”
Both plays suggest the Harper administration does not want the cost of military action visible to the public.
“The Canadian government is following the bad example set by the US administration if it thinks it can hide the facts from the population,” Reporters Without Borders said on its website.
“Respect for the grief of the families is of course necessary, but it should not be used as a pretext that is tantamount to censorship.”
The Conservatives are willing to go further than that, if there’s any truth to the sentiment behind Conservative MP Myron Thompson’s assertion that “if they brought my son home from that war in a body bag, I’d shoot the first media that come on site,” as reported in the Montreal Gazette.
Privacy issues notwithstanding, Canadians deserve to know the price of Canada’s presence in Afghanistan.
The fear that held Harper’s election in January to a minority government was that he would make Canada into a mini-America, with financial, cultural and socio-religious ties too close to preserve a national distinction.
Although not half the evangelist that US president George W. Bush has proven to be, Harper is at least twice as smart — which is a secular blessing.
But the arena of war holds political consequences as well as a blood price, and the same tools of censorship that Bush uses are being applied in Canada to control public perception.
This will not do.
Harper’s media honeymoon is over. Within weeks of taking office he banned reporters from the hallway outside cabinet offices in the House of Commons, and has developed a reputation for snubbing the national media corps and muzzling his ministers.
The Canadian media aren’t likely to let Harper sidestep accountability principle that figured so prominently during his successful campaign.
They’re not likely to turn a blind eye to casualties in Afghanistan either, regardless of how high the Peace Tower flag flies. (GM)