Reporter Ben Makuch knew his Islamic State reporting would draw police attention but never fathomed they would order him to turn over his materials.
By H.G. Watson, Associate Editor
Vice News national security reporter and associate editor Ben Makuch was in Russia working on a story when he got a cryptic message from his colleagues in Toronto. It wasn’t until he arrived back in the city in late February 2015 that he found out what had happened—the RCMP were demanding that he hand over all of his notes and records of communications relating to several interviews he had conducted with a member of the Islamic State.
The irony of having a Canadian police force request his notes while he was in a country where press freedoms are repressed was not lost on Makuch. “To know that it can happen in your country was something that was a bit shocking for me and a bit dismaying,” he told J-Source.
But he isn’t giving the RCMP anything if he can help it. In January, Vice and Makuch will head to an Ontario courtroom to defend his right to protect his materials.
Makuch knew that when he started reaching out to IS members in the course of his reporting on the group’s activities, he might come under the scrutiny of law enforcement agencies. “But I never would have thought that they would ever serve me with a production order, essentially forcing me to fork over everything I've got,” he said.
He started contacting western militants in insurgent groups in Iraq and Syria in 2013. His work resulted in stories on Vice about Farah Mohamed Shirdon, a Canadian IS member. Though Makuch has used encryption services in the past, he contacted the fighters using open source messaging apps. Makuch found Shirdon on Twitter, and always communicated with him using Kik.
In one interview, conducted days before the 2014 attack on Parliament Hill, Shirdon said Canadians would “face the brunt of retaliation,” according to Vice. In a different interview, with just Vice co-founder and CEO Shane Smith over Skype published on Sept. 24, 2014, Shirdon said his IS brothers were “mobilizing” in New York City.
According to Vice Canada head of content Patrick McGuire, as a result of the interview with Smith, the RCMP charged Shirdon in absentia with one criminal charge.
Vice wasn’t the only outlet to interview Shirdon—Toronto Star national security reporter Michelle Shephard interviewed him over instant messenger in 2014, according to a Star report.
But so far, Vice Canada is the only outlet served with a production order from the RCMP—the first time the organization has ever been served one. RCMP spokesperson Annie Delisle said in an email to J-Source that the production order on Makuch and the Vice Canada office is part of their process to collect evidence in a criminal investigation, and that the RCMP would not comment further at this time.
McGuire said this case speaks to a much larger issue of the lack of protection for journalists sources in Canada. “This has really opened my eyes personally to just how behind the times we are,” he said.
Vice’s Parliament correspondent Justin Ling outlined the various shield laws that exist in other countries to protect journalists’ sources—Canada doesn’t have one. And there have been some instances where the RCMP has seized materials from journalists.
“This is simply to keep the wall of independence from police forces up,” McGuire said of their court challenge. Given all they have already published about Shirdon, McGuire said he is unsure how anyone could look at this issue and think that Vice was compromising national security or protecting a terrorist.
However, he hopes those changes will come sooner, rather than later, now that there’s a new party leading the Canadian government.
The case has only strengthened Vice editorial staff’s commitment to doing the challenging reporting they are known for. “I don't want any of our reporters to think that because this is happening they should be fearful of reporting on certain subjects—I think it should be the opposite,” McGuire said.
And Makuch is ready to fight “I am willing to go the distance of where this has to go to protect journalists rights and my own rights and freedom of the press.”