At least two Conservative parliamentarians have indicated they want a government-ordered public inquiry to investigate Canadian news outlets for alleged Chinese influence, a proposal that one advocate warns could endanger press freedom.

In an article published on his Substack last week, former Global News reporter Sam Cooper cited “intelligence documents” which claimed that the government of China has mounted a “covert takeover” of Chinese-language media, and is also “seeking to control” mainstream news outlets in Canada. Per Cooper’s article, the intelligence documents said media manipulation is “a key weapon” in the Chinese government’s “clandestine arsenal” for boosting certain political candidates at all levels of government.

Cooper warns of “Beijing’s overarching strategy to subvert democracy using Canada’s free press.”

Responding to the story on “X” (the new name for Elon Musk’s Twitter), Conservative MP Ryan Williams called for an inquiry into the matter. Reached for comment by The Maple via email, Williams confirmed that he wants both mainstream and independent news outlets to be investigated.

Williams stressed that “especially the smaller and independent news organizations mentioned in [Cooper’s] article” should be included as part of any inquiry.

“We need a full independent public inquiry for any and all interference in our democracy and we need it now.”

Conservative Senator Denise Batters also responded to Cooper’s story on X, writing: “Public Inquiry Now. Foreign Agent Registry Now.” Batters’ advisor for parliamentary affairs Lana Fawcett Helman told The Maple via email that Batters was unavailable for an interview last Thursday to discuss her call for an inquiry.

After being given an opportunity to submit a written statement, Batters’ office provided no further correspondence.

James Turk, director of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Centre for Free Expression, told The Maple that calls for an inquiry into news outlets are reminiscent of the McCarthy era.

This refers to a period named after U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy, who spearheaded a campaign of political persecution against individuals and organizations accused — often baselessly — of spreading communist influence in American society during the 1940s and 1950s.

U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy. Photo via Wikipedia, licensed under Public Domain.

The McCarthy witch hunt also spilled over into Canada, with the RCMP conducting over 70,000 checks for political or sexual nonconformity among civil servants, scientists, university professors and trade unionists in one year alone. Prior to the McCarthy period, the government of Quebec passed a “padlock law” in 1937, allowing the authorities to shutter any organization suspected of harbouring communist literature or activities.

“This just resonates with the same kind of excessive and unjustified claims being made that we saw happen then, a period that most people look back on as a shameful period in Canadian and American history,” said Turk.

“One of the four fundamental freedoms in the Charter includes freedom of the press, and so the idea of the government investigating the media, and in particular, smaller media that have fewer legal resources to defend themselves, is really quite worrisome.”

Williams did not respond to a follow-up request from The Maple seeking comment on how his call might infringe on press freedoms.

The latest calls for a public inquiry stem from a broader panic about allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian elections and civil society. This has included claims against MP Han Dong, who is currently suing Cooper over a story that reported allegations that Dong had advised a Chinese consulate official to delay releasing two Canadians from Chinese custody in February 2021.

More recently, the National Post published two articles suggesting that recently elected Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow had received campaign help from and/or been in contact with groups that had previously made statements aligned with Beijing, despite Chow being a longtime critic of the Communist Party of China.

In May, special rapporteur David Johnston, who was controversially appointed by the Trudeau government to investigate alleged foreign interference, said that allegations about Han Dong attempting to delay the release of the Canadians from Chinese custody were false, and that there was no intelligence to suggest that Chinese government money reached specific candidates during the 2019 federal election.

Johnston also said that he found very little evidence to support claims made by former Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole that some of his party’s candidates were defeated at the 2021 election because of Chinese government interference.

Johnston stepped down from his role in June, citing concerns about the fact that his role had become too mired in political controversy. His appointment was criticized due to his personal connections to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Turk said that while concerns about any interference in elections are legitimate, most countries seek to play a role in shaping the conduct of other nations. The current panic in Canada, he noted, has focused almost exclusively on China, despite evidence of other countries playing an equally or more prominent role in attempting to influence civil society.

“In terms of interventions using the diaspora, arguably India does it even more aggressively than China, and yet there's never talk about that,” he said. “It also strikes me that it taps into a long history of anti-Asian racism in Canada.”

Critics have likened the current focus on alleged Chinese influence in Canada to the “Yellow Peril,” whereby authorities in Western countries stoked racist fears and conspiracy theories about Chinese people and the Chinese government. Turk echoed that criticism.

“The single-minded focus on China suggests that it's not really just about foreign interference, but there's a political agenda being played out here as there was in the 1940s and 50s.”

According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), approximately 5.1 per cent of the Canadian population is of Chinese descent. Turk said the notion that Chinese Canadians are all dupes for Chinese government narratives has no serious evidentiary basis.

As well, Turk questions the apparent degree of trust placed by some media reports in intelligence agency sources.

“There's a surprising trust … in documents from intelligence agencies, instead of being skeptical,” Turk explained. “There's the old cliche that to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. For intelligence agencies, their business and their ability to get funding depends on there being threats.”

The Maple reached out to both the Canadian Association of Journalists and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression for comment, but did not receive any response.

Alex Cosh is the news editor of The Maple.

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