Cablegate: Quebec City Radio Station Closure Sparks Political And

Published: Fri 13 Aug 2004 07:07 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. Summary: A local radio station ordered to close by the
Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission
(CRTC) as stirred up an expected storm of controversy in the
Quebec capital, and has also captured extensive national and
international press attention since the decision was first
announced July 13. This is reportedly the first time the CRTC
has moved to close a station solely on the basis of (offensive
and abusive) verbal content on the air. Since 1996, the
programming of CHOI-FM has been the subject of numerous
complaints with respect to the conduct of its announcers and the
spoken word content that is aired, including offensive comments,
personal attacks and harassment. The station, however, has
portrayed the decision as a blow to freedom of expression, as
has "Reporters Without Borders." 50,000 supporters took to the
streets in Quebec City on July 22, and another 5,000 bussed to
Ottawa on August 10, to press the federal government to reverse
the decision. Some Quebec politicians are joining the call for
a review by the courts before the August 31 closure, and several
are looking for a new deal with Ottawa that will give the
province greater control over broadcasting in Quebec. End
2. The CRTC is an independent agency responsible for regulating
Canada's broadcasting and telecommunications systems. The
Commission ultimately reports to Parliament through the Minister
of Canadian Heritage. Its nine panel members are appointed by
the federal government and individuals are usually selected with
an eye to insuring that all regions are represented. In its
decision issued July 13, the CRTC found that on numerous
occasions, CHOI had failed to comply with the 1986 Radio
Regulations as well as the station's own Code of Ethics, as
required by its license. It ordered that station closed by
August 31. At the same time, the CRTC announced a call for
applications for broadcasting licenses to operate a new
French-language station in Quebec City.
3. On July 22, Quebec City witnessed its largest public
demonstration since the 2001 Summit of the Americas when an
estimated 50,000 people swelled the 8 kilometer march from
suburban Ste-Foy to the Old Port, as CHOI broadcast an amplified
heartbeat. CHOI's main personality, talk-show host Jeff
(Jean-Francois) Fillion was greeted with rock-star adulation
when he took to the podium at the march's terminus. Unlike most
local demonstrations, the CHOI march did not have the Quebec
unions at its core, but was promoted on the airwaves by the
radio station itself, which apparently expected a maximum of
5,000 protesters. For the August 10 rally in Ottawa, the
station rented 50 buses and launched an appeal to fans.
According to press reports, the tickets sold rapidly at the
symbolic price of $9.81 (CHOI broadcasts at 98.1 MHz). 5,000
Quebec fans and local supporters staged an emotional, but
peaceful, rally at the federal capital. Fillion broadcast live
from Parliament Hill and admitted on the air that the station
had "made some mistakes." Heritage Minister Liza Frulla (a
Quebec Minister of Cultural Affairs in the 1990s) reaffirmed the
federal government position that the CRTC decision was
"irreversible." She said the decision was reached by an
independent agency and could not be reversed by the government.
Station owner Demers requested a meeting with PM Paul Martin and
was turned down. The station has now hired the prominent and
flamboyant Quebec City lawyer Guy Bertrand, and appealed the
decision before a federal court judge, supported by a
10,000-page petition.
4. CHOI-FM is the principal asset of Genex Communications Inc,
which was formed in 1996 by Patrice Demers, a then-executive
with Telemedia, which was forced to give up its recently
acquired CHOI license on competition grounds. The French
pronunciation of its call letters, CHOI, is a synonym for
"choice," and the name of its corporate parent proclaims its
target audience: the post-baby-boom generation X'ers. CHOI
currently attracts half the listeners in its market, which has a
population of one million. CHOI initially programmed
exclusively contemporary (largely American) rock music, and
quickly ran afoul of the CRTC for not airing a sufficient
proportion of Canadian and French-language music. The station
introduced talk-radio about three years ago, with Jeff Fillion
holding forth on a three-hour morning show, and 25-year veteran
Andre Arthur airing for two hours during the evening commute.
Over the years, hosts Fillion and Arthur, who emulate Howard
Stern in the U.S., have been repeatedly sued by both private
citizens and public figures on a variety of grounds, including
defamation. (Arthur was pulled from the airwaves in 2001 when
he worked for neighboring station CJFM.)
5. The CRTC put CHOI on two years' probation in 2002 for
failure to comply with regulations regarding, among other
things, abusive comment, the submission of logger tapes,
insufficient French-language vocal music, and sex-role
portrayal. The Commission also considered that the station's
hosts were "relentless" in their misuse of the public airwaves
despite unequivocal reprimands and warnings by the CRTC. In
February 2004 the Commission called Genex to a public hearing in
Quebec City to deliberate the possible suspension or non-renewal
of CHOI-FMs license. Genex failed to convince the panel,
reportedly denying a problem existed, and continued to broadcast
the same subject matter. In the current debate, CHOI has never
publicly entertained the notion of firing Fillon, suggesting
merely that he be fined. Indeed, for CHOI to abandon its
talk-radio style would likely destroy its prominent place in the
local radio market.
6. Quebec politicians have joined in the debate, focusing both
on the freedom of expression dimension and on questions of
regulatory authority. Telecoms is a federal jurisdiction, but
culture falls under provincial authority and has high visibility
in Quebec. Quebec Premier Jean Charest publicly expressed his
disagreement with the ruling and called for better
representation of Quebec interests on the CTRC. He also called
for an administrative agreement with Ottawa to give the province
greater powers over radio and telecommunications. Action
Democratique du Quebec leader Mario Dumont also demanded that
the province be given control over its broadcast policy (albeit
via (illegal) provincial legislation). Provincial Opposition
leader, Bernard Landry of the Parti Quebecois, said that the
case should be settled by the courts, and expressed sympathy for
the fifty CHOI employees who would lose their jobs. The Bloc
Quebecois, however, issued a statement reiterating the
independence of action of the CRTC and its unwillingness to
interfere. Conservative Stephen Harper's Quebec lieutenant
Josee Verner said the "CRTC decision was of unprecedented
severity," and harshly criticized the government for its
inaction. The recent incidents drew international attention
among the journalistic community, with "Reporters Without
Borders" declaring the case to be an unprecedented "case of
curbing freedom of expression and censorship."
7. The CHOI decision and the significance of the unanticipated
public outcry has stirred up and dominated discussion among
local citizens and the media to an extent not seen since the run
up to the Iraq War. One very vocal group adopts the ground
staked out by Demers and defends the station under the banner of
free speech and information, often pointing out the role of the
station in calling politicians to account and uncovering
scandals. Others, however, question how far freedom of
expression should be allowed to go, see CHOI as part of the
"hate radio" phenomena, its "investigations" as irresponsible
calumny, and who think that the station had been given its
chance to clean itself up. Others have seen in the CHOI
phenomenon evidence of hidden trends. In a guest piece in Le
Soleil August 8, Laval University sociologist Simon Langlois
suggested that the volume of CHOI's support did not reflect blue
collar/white collar differences, but rather the "angry young
white men" hypothesis. Langlois noted that half the radio
listeners aged 18-34 in the Quebec area listen to CHOI, along
with a quarter of the listeners in the 34-44 cohort. He said
that many of these young men are junior college and university
educated. Langlois also said that a third of student listeners
and a third of unemployed listeners tuned to CHOI. The
station's attraction, he contended, rested with its alternative
music and its non-politically correct discourse.
8. Comment. The CHOI affair could become an unexpected
political test for Liberal leaders Jean Charest and Paul Martin.
An administrative deal between Quebec and Ottawa on
telecommunications, an exclusive federal competency, would rule
out the need for constitutional amendments, but discussions
would test the new federal-provincial relationship under
Martin's minority government leadership. The extent of
attention the CHOI case has struck among the political class has
some commentators cynically pointing out the link between this
political "crusade" and the provincial by-elections scheduled
September 20, the first since the provincial Liberals came to
power in the elections of May 2003. End Comment.
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