Muzzling Student Media

Tumultuous relationships between student governments and student newspapers are a common occurrence

By Chahira Merarsi and Jake Wray
Photo by Veronnica MacKillop

 

In the eyes of many budding reporters, student unions are a treasure troves of stories. But accessing those stories has often proved difficult.

For years, reporters for The Voice have tried to write about their student union, the Langara Students’ Union (LSU), with little success. Whether writing about student union events or bylaw changes, the LSU has given little to no answer when Voice reporters question their inner dealings.

And whether at Langara or elsewhere, unions run the risk of losing credibility as a voice for students when there is a lack of transparency about their activity.

Former Langara journalism department chair Rob Dykstra knows all about the strained relationships between Langara journalists and the Langara Students’ Union.

“As soon as The Voice was distributed, they went around and they emptied out all the boxes and threw the papers away,” Dykstra said in an interview with The Voice for a special LSU edition of the paper in Dec. 2016.

The LSU is so averse to publicity that questions can no longer be asked in person, over the phone or by email. The LSU’s current policy states that all media questions must be sent through a form on their website and that reporters must allow up to 24 hours for a response.

The LSU also has a policy in place that prevents reporters from taking photographs or video within their student union building.

In 2015, Voice reporters requested to see the LSU’s budget and meeting minutes. While Voice reporters were investigating for journalistic purposes, they are also students and therefore part of the LSU’s membership— meaning they are entitled to copies of the budget. However, obtaining the budget and meeting minutes proved to be a more difficult task than it should have been. Vincent Matak, a former Langara journalism student, had reported on the LSU during his time in the journalism department. He says the LSU refused to release the budget while he was reporting for The Voice and that reporters were only allowed to view the meeting minutes after multiple requests.

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The special LSU edition of The Voice posted outside the journalism department at Langara College

“We weren’t actually allowed to do any sort of reporting with any of the information we were granted access [to]. All we could do is sit down in the LSU office and review it. We weren’t allowed to take any notes, we weren’t allowed to duplicate the information.”

By law, student unions must disclose their meeting minutes, the budget and financial statements.

A lack of transparency between student unions and their institution’s paper is not a problem solely plaguing Langara College; student reporters at other schools have run into similar roadblocks in their reporting.

Mercedes Deutscher, news editor at Douglas College’s The Other Press, interviewed two Douglas Students’ Union council members last year in the hopes of better acquainting the students with their representatives. At the end of one of the interviews, the council member asked to speak to Deutscher off the record.

“That representative, who was not going to run in the election that year, basically told me that there had been members of the then-student union that were corrupt,” Deutscher says. “They were very corrupt, they were not really looking to pass anything. One of the people who was implicated in this was the other person I had interviewed before.”

Deutscher then tried to contact that council member again, but when Deutscher refused to send her questions in advance of the interview, the council member asked to be removed from all The Other Press articles.

Deutscher describes an alliance of three students who misused funds. “It started out with some debauchery at the Canadian Federation of Students conference, where a bunch of them had not fulfilled their obligations and attended the panel but instead chose to stay out late drinking … and spending $1,000 on partying.”

Deutscher says that their only punishment was being barred from future CFS conferences.

According to Deutscher, the DSU council members also threatened to involve an international student in legal trouble and sexually harassed female council members.

“Me and my then-editor-in-chief decided we should publish a feature story on this during election week,” Deutscher says. “This obviously was a very frightening notion for people who were running for re-election because this would definitely harm their chances.”

After a slew of threatening messages between the accused council members and Deutscher’s editors, The Other Press decided, on production night, to refrain from reporting on the allegations for fear of being sued.

“Basically the feature got squashed because we didn’t have the resources to defend ourselves in a libel case, which I’m sure we would have won,” Deutscher says. “I was absolutely devastated.”

She adds that she felt as though she had disappointed the student body and missed out on an opportunity to create change in her community.

“I felt like a lot people, including the people I had talked to, were relying on me to publish this story,” Deutscher says. “This was a story that was supposed to shake the results of the student election. This was a story that was supposed to bring some […] secrets of the student union out into the public, where everyone could find out about it.”

“I felt like there was a great sense of duty. I was afraid of what would happen in the aftermath of the story, but I felt like the aftermath would be worth it. I felt like it was the right thing; it was justice to publish that story. So when [my editor] told me that we couldn’t publish it that week, the week of the student election, I felt crushed.”

Although the story wasn’t published, the council members weren’t re-elected and The Other Press now has a much better relationship with the DSU.

In 2011, scandal also hit Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s campus. Its student union, the Kwantlen Student Association (KSA), was in shambles amid accusations that the KSA had misappropriated student funds.

“In 2005, 2006, there was a group that ran for the Kwantlen Student Association called Reduce All Fees,” says Connor Doyle, the managing editor of KPU’s magazine The Runner. “Soon after their time in office it was claimed that they embezzled up to $2 million of student fees.”

According to Doyle, the student association in 2011 tried to take legal action against Reduce All Fees (RAF), but dropped the case due to high legal fees. It was later discovered that the two student councils were colluding.

“It was uncovered by a Runner reporter, Matt DiMera, that the 2011 KSA had ties to the initial RAF group including one of the directors of the [2011] KSA being the sister of one of the lead defendants in the case, which was never disclosed.”

Doyle says that those were tougher times for Kwantlen reporters.“This [student union] was also trying to do the stuff like trying to prevent recording devices at council. It withheld funding from The Runner. The money is levied from the university, from the students, to the KSA and then handed to us; they tried to hold onto the cheque and not deliver it to us.”

Doyle says that although the KSA is much more receptive to their inquiries today, they could be better. “I imagine you’d be hard pressed to find any student editor that would call their student union sufficiently transparent,” Doyle says. “Every generation is different than the previous one, although what we’ve found in common is that they always seem to tighten up and become less transparent the longer they’re in office. Perhaps they feel they’ve been burned by certain stories or certain writers.”

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