OTTAWA - The Conservative cabinet has quietly changed a rule that could have prevented the CBC from following through on its plan to cut its international shortwave radio service.
Supporters of Radio Canada International, which faces a near fatal 80-per-cent budget cut from the CBC, say that amounts to the government essentially ending all uncensored Canadian broadcasts to places like China and Russia.
Heritage Minister James Moore recommended an order in council, approved on June 7, that deleted a requirement for RCI to maintain a shortwave service.
That change removed an obstacle to the steep cuts the CBC had announced for RCI in April — $10 million of $12.3 million budget will disappear along with at least three-quarters of its work force.
RCI had planned to file an injunction this past week to prevent CBC from shutting down its shortwave broadcasting facilities, but the new order thwarted their lawyers.
"I don't know how this happened. I'm just shocked that it did happen. I'm shocked that the minister would make this decision two months after CBC announced the budget cut, two months after the CBC announced they were cutting shortwave," said Wojtek Gwiazda, spokesman for the RCI Action Committee, a union-supported lobby trying to save the international service.
The RCI cuts are one of the measures outlined by the CBC in response to the last federal budget, which reduced the public broadcaster's subsidy by 10 per cent over the next three years, to about $115 million.
Moore's office appeared to place the onus on the CBC for any federal rule changes that RCI supporters might find objectionable.
"These changes are the result of proposals the CBC submitted to us, and we accepted. The CBC has the money necessary to fulfil its mandate and we appreciate the CBC doing its part to contribute to balancing the budget," spokesman James Maunder said in an emailed response to questions.
The CBC and Radio Canada continued Friday to defend the cuts to RCI as a necessary budget measure.
"Cost-cutting and efficiency measures were put in place in all the components and services of CBC/Radio-Canada. The transformation of RCI is one of these significant measures," spokesman Marc Pichette said in an emailed response.
Pichette wouldn't comment on the changes to the order in council.
The previous version of the order in council called on RCI to provide its service "through shortwave, as well as other means of distribution as appropriate."
The new version reads: "to provide that service through the Internet and, as appropriate, through other means of distribution."
The new version also removed a provision "to establish geographic target areas and languages of broadcast in consultation with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade."
The changes mean the end of "uncensored news" to countries where Internet filters easily allow any dissent-wary government to block the flow of information, said Gwiazda, a 32-year RCI veteran, and one of the few employees who won't lose his job.
Blocking radio broadcasts is difficult because "you have to feed sounds on the same frequency we're broadcasting on and that's a huge pain. With the Internet all you have to do is block the entry of a given website into the country, which is what the Chinese authorities do with RCI's Mandarin website."
The RCI cuts mean that other important trading partners for Canada, including Russia, India and Brazil, will be cut off from Canadian news because the service's website is blocked or is simply not as accessible, he said.
Gwiazda and others point out that poor people across Asia, Africa and Latin America have limited access to the Internet and rely more on radio for their information.
But Pichette said shortwave radio use has been in constant decline for years.
"Our decision to put an end to this way of broadcasting is consistent with a worldwide trend, as the evolution of technologies such as the Internet, cellular phone and others prove more convenient to reflect Canada and Canadians around the world."
Thomas Witherspoon, founder of an American non-profit organization called Ears to Our World, said it is shortsighted to cut RCI's shortwave service because it represents a cost-effective way of showing Canada to the world.
Witherspoon, whose organization distributes shortwave radios to communities in the developing world, recently wrote an impassioned opinion piece defending RCI.
"Here on the overly-lit, information-saturated North American continent, it's easy to forget that an estimated 1.6 billion human beings — a full one quarter of us — still lack access to reliable power and to the Internet," he wrote.
"In remote, impoverished, often war-torn regions, radio has become a familiar voice in the darkness. Without radio broadcasters such as RCI — and the light of information they can relay — the night can become very dark, indeed."
Gwiazda said he's received accolades for RCI's work from all over the world, including the former Yugoslavia while it was imploding due to ethnic-fuelled civil war two decades ago.
"Our core mandate is explaining Canada to the world," said Gwiazda.
"We're not a propaganda unit. The reason why we're popular is we're like CBC and Radio-Canada in terms of honest journalism."