Quebec broadcaster wants Tories to reverse CRTC decision

CHOI-FM faces closing as owners ask new minister to keep pre-election pledge

February 11, 2006
Globe and Mail
By Rheal Seguin

QUEBEC -- Quebec City's No. 1 radio station, CHOI-FM, is urging the new Conservative government in Ottawa to stop the station from closing.

Patrice Demers, president of Genex Communications Inc., said he will soon meet with Heritage Canada Minister Bev Oda and the minister responsible for the Quebec City region, Josée Verner, to ask them to keep their commitment to reverse the federal broadcast regulator's decision to revoke CHOI-FM's licence.

"They both said during the election campaign that they thought the decision to close the station was too severe. It's now a political issue and they have to decide what they can do now," Mr. Demers said in an interview.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission revoked the controversial station's licence in July of 2004, saying CHOI-FM had failed to comply with repeated demands to end abusive comments by former morning radio host Jean-François (Jeff) Fillion and part-time co-host André Arthur.

It was the first time a radio station's licence has been revoked strictly for offensive, vulgar and abusive language. The station has since fired Mr. Fillion, and Mr. Arthur was elected as the country's only Independent MP on Jan. 23.

Last September, the Federal Court of Appeal upheld the CRTC's decision and reinforced the commission's authority to regulate what is said on Canada's airwaves. In a unanimous decision, the court rejected the station's argument that the CRTC's decision was censorship and an infringement on freedom of speech.

"I do not think that freedom of expression, freedom of opinion and freedom of speech mean freedom of defamation, freedom of oppression and freedom of opprobrium," Mr. Justice Gilles Létourneau said.

Last month, the Supreme Court of Canada heard the station's application to appeal the decision. Mr. Demers's lawyer, Guy Bertrand, argued that the decision to close the station was political.

"This is a right-wing, populist pro-American station. It is anti-Quebec, anti-sovereigntist, anti-union, anti-government and has repeatedly attacked the local political establishment. Its politics angers the political elite as well as a majority of the population," Mr. Bertrand said.

If the Supreme Court refuses to hear the case, CHOI-FM will have to close immediately unless the judges accept Mr. Bertrand's request to allow 60 days for the orderly shut-down of what is estimated as a $25-million business operation.

In Ottawa, sources say the government will not intervene as long as the case is before the courts. But Mr. Arthur, who campaigned on a promise to keep the Conservatives to their word to save the station, said political intervention should not depend on the court action.

Mr. Arthur said the Conservative government could immediately require the CRTC to review its decision. But he added that such a move would weaken the regulator's ability to patrol the airwaves.

"The CRTC doesn't want to lose face and certainly does not want to lose its censorship powers. If the government forces the CRTC to review its decision, this would mean the end of the CRTC as we know it," Mr. Arthur said in an interview yesterday.

Mr. Demers could also agree to close the station temporarily and apply for a new licence.

Ms. Oda was unavailable for comment.

A spokeswoman for her office, Dominique Collin, said the minister would examine the file before deciding what action to take.