Did journalists violate rights of B.C. terror suspects?
Allegations that two Canadian citizens planned to explode homemade devices similar to the kind used in the Boston marathon bombing during Canada Day celebrations at the B.C. legislature in Victoria is shocking. Does that justify the actions of journalists who entered the apartment of the two suspects this week, rummaged through their private belongings, took photographs of those belongings and subsequently splashed some of those photos on the front pages of such news outlets across the country? Law Editor Thomas Rose has more on the legal and ethical dimensions of such behaviour.
Allegations that two Canadian citizens planned to explode homemade devices similar to the kind used in the Boston marathon bombing during Canada Day celebrations at the B.C. legislature in Victoria is shocking.
The horror of what might have happened to thousands of revelers who came to celebrate what makes this country great was mitigated only by news that police had thwarted the plot and detained two suspects.
The prompt arrest of Amanda Korody and John Stuart Nuttall is to be lauded.
What should not be praised however is the shocking behaviour of journalists who entered the apartment of the two suspects this week, rummaged through their private belongings, took photographs of those belongings and subsequently splashed some of those photos on the front pages of such news outlets as the Victoria Times Colonist, The Province, the Globe and Mail and the National Post.
Related content on J-Source:
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- Whistleblowers, journalists and the public's right to know
- Radio-Canada reporters did not violate standards of practice on Charest-Brandone story: Ombudsman
The B.C. Liberties Association as well as the province’s non-profit Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre say that what journalists did was not only immoral, but illegal. The journalists involved in what one observer described as a ‘mob scene’ defend their behaviour, saying they were acting in the public interest and besides, they say, the landlord where the suspects lived allowed them into the apartment, so it was okay.
At best, that is pretty thin defense for behaviour that is likely to erode an already plummeting public confidence in the profession of journalism.
Even a cursory review of relevant laws and court cases would reveal to even the greenest of media lawyers, editors, producers and publishers that a landlord rarely possesses what is called ‘lawful possession of a property’ and therefore is not authorized to grant anyone else entry to a private residence.[node:ad]
Police armed with proper legal documents, generally a search warrant, are of course allowed to enter private domains, provided the grounds for the warrant are legitimate and the scope of the search does not extend beyond what the warrant provides. Without a search warrant however, the courts have consistently held that access should be strictly regulated.
Journalists invited onto private property by police are generally protected from potential lawsuits. Likewise, journalists who have obtained prior consent of the person in lawful possession of a property, even if that consent is later withdrawn, are also granted a degree of protection. In this case, however, the journalists relied on the authority of the landlord who is on record as saying that prior permission of the tenants was not obtained. Incredibly, the landlord told QMI Agency that he ‘assumed the media would know whether it was legal to visit the suite. "Media people’, he said, ‘should know better than us".
When it comes to trespass and invasion of personal privacy, even in the name of gathering news, the courts have been fairly consistent in their approach equating privacy to a fundamental Charter right . The right to privacy is considered so sacrosanct that the Supreme Court has in certain cases even extended the notion of personal privacy to the workplace.
The courts and public opinion have tended to side with journalists who trespass in pursuit of a story in the public interest, as in the case of journalists who trespassed onto public property in order to get a story about a plane crash, or journalists who trespass to obtain evidence of people in authority who may be ‘plotting against the public good’.
But what are we to make of the actions of those journalists who descended upon the residence of Amanda Korody and John Stuart Nuttall? Certainly a potential act of so-called homegrown terrorism is in the public interest, and is worthy of scrutiny. But the two individuals at the centre of the alleged plot are after all still only suspects. They have not been convicted of anything. They have not relinquished the rights any other Canadian citizen enjoys, including the right to privacy.
Under the circumstances, that is Canadians charged with engaging in a terrorist plot against other Canadians, the idea that people are ‘innocent until proven guilty’ may be considered by some to be a rather quaint notion. Regardless, it is a notion that is a foundation of our legal system and conveniently ignoring this fact in pursuit of a story may have garnered the journalists involved accolades at the office and increased audience share for their bosses but such disregard of the law is in no way acting in the public interest.