By: Mark Fitzgerald

Americas Extra: Report On Government’s Inquiries

CHICAGO – Canada is again going through one of its periodic
fits of angst about the ever-tightening concentration of
newspaper ownership. The nation has been here before:
Investigations by the Davey Commission in the 1970s and the Kent
Commission in the 1980s concluded that corporate concentration
was hurting editorial content, but their rather mild
recommendations were quickly forgotten.

Interest in media competition was revived by last year’s
acquisition flurry, especially the blockbuster sale transferring
the more than 100 Southam Inc. papers and half-ownership of the
National Post from Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc. to Israel
“Izzy” Asper’s CanWest Global Communications Inc., the nation’s
biggest owner of TV and radio stations. When the deal was
announced, Heritage Minister Sheila Copps promised to name a new
government commission on media concentration, but she never quite
got around to doing it.

The matter might have lain dormant indefinitely had not Izzy
Asper’s son, David, reminded Canada in a rather dramatic way last
month what it means when one owner controls nearly 40% of a
nation’s newspaper circulation. David Asper believes papers are
being unfair to Prime Minister Jean Chr?tien in their coverage of
the so-called Auberge Grand-M?re conflict-of-interest scandal. So
Asper fils had his open letter to journalists published in every
Southam newspaper and the National Post. Opposition
parties were enraged.

“Isn’t this eloquent proof,” Bloc Qu?b?cois representative Michel
Gauthier asked in Parliament, “that there is a great danger in
the concentration of the press in Canada, a danger that political
information will be pointed in the direction of the views of the
prime minister?”

After again promising a media concentration commission and even
floating some names, Copps suddenly reversed herself. Newspapers,
she said, will be studied along with cable and broadcast when the
federal Broadcast Act comes up for review.

Now even some newspapers are mad at Copps. In an editorial
headlined “Fading vigilance,” The Toronto Star wrote, “The
central concern is whether Canadians will have access to a
diversity of voices – a concern over which Copps seems to
have lost her voice.” The Canadian Association of Journalists has
pretty much lost hope anything will be done about concentration,
said its president, Toronto Star investigative reporter
Rob Cribb: “I don’t think [ownership concentration] will be
dismantled in any meaningful way. It’s kind of beyond the scope
of government at this time.”

One possible solution is proving to be a nonstarter: allowing
U.S. companies to bid for Canadian papers by repealing the law
that essentially prohibits foreign ownership of more than 25% of
a newspaper. The only Canadian voices in favor of that are
executives from chains such as Hollinger or Thomson Corp., which
are stuck with dozens of papers they’ve been unable to sell off.

The Newspaper Guild, which has members both in Canada and the
United States, tries whenever it can to raise alarms about U.S.
media concentration and its effect on editorial diversity. But
Canada’s experience shows how difficult it can be to slow down
this relentless centripetal force. Said Guild President Linda K.
Foley, “Media concentration is such a fast-moving train, it’s
hard to keep up with it.”

Americas Extra Roundup

Prophetic words? “Murder continues to be used as a tool
for silencing journalism in the Americas,” the Inter American
Press Association declared as it ended its midyear meeting in
Fortaleza, Brazil, on March 20 by noting that six journalists had
been killed in the Americas in the six months since it last met.

Four days later, outside the border town of Matamoros,
Mexico, Saul Martinez, assistant director of the daily El
Imparcial, was found dead in his truck with four bullets in
his head. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) noted that
Martinez reported frequently on local drug traffickers –
just as Jose Luis Ortega Mata, editor of the weekly Semanario
de Ojinaga was doing when he was murdered in the same fashion
in the state of Chihuahua on Feb. 19.

More than 200 journalists demonstrated in front of the
Supreme Court of Justice of Panama to protest the prison
sentences of 18 months, commutable with the payment of $400
fines, handed down against daily newspaper reporters Juan Diaz,
of Panama America, and Rainer Tunon, formerly of
Critica Libre. The pair were convicted of “crimes against
honor” after a doctor complained about a story quoting a judge’s
comments about an investigation into fake medical degrees. The
doctor is seeking the same complaint against reporter Jose Otero
of the daily La Prensa.

After more than two years of imprisonment on charges of
“insulting” Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, Manuel Antonio Gonzalez
Castellanos, a correspondent with the independent news agency
Cuba Press, was released from jail in late February. RSF says the
release leaves just one Cuban journalist imprisoned for his work:
Bernardo Arevalo Padron, founder of the independent news agency
Linea Sur Press, who was sentenced to six years in prison in
November 1997 – also for “insulting” Castro.

Mark Fitzgerald ( is editor at large for E&P.

Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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