R v. Vice News decision undermines independence of journalists
By Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
The undersigned organizations have issued a joint letter to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale expressing alarm over the Ontario Superior Court ruling that Vice News reporter Ben Makuch must hand over all communications between him and an ISIS fighter to the RCMP. The coalition urges the RCMP and Public Safety Canada to respect the independence of journalists and drop demands for the release of private material and correspondence with sources.
The protection of sources is a foundational principle of journalism, making crucial reporting like Makuch’s coverage of ISIS possible in the first place. By forcing Makuch to hand over his notes to the RCMP, or go to jail, the court has undermined press freedom—a critical component of our democratic society—and made it less likely that sources will be willing to speak with journalists.
“This represents a terrible blow for press freedom in Canada. Journalists are not a law enforcement arm for the government and to be treated as such by the judiciary is a significant threat to their independence” said Tom Henheffer, Executive Director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). “If police increasingly take journalists’ notes and communications, sources will be less willing to talk, and stories like Makuch’s won’t be told in the first place.”
“We journalists work to inform people on matters of public interest; namely, in this case, the process through which Canadians become indoctrinated and join jihadist groups,” said Lise Millette, President of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québe (FPJQ). “This Court decision sets us on a slippery slope where we won’t be able to talk to alleged criminals because our communications could be used in police investigations. If sources become too afraid to talk to journalists, we will be limited in our capacity to uncover the truth, and the public will be left in the dark.”
“Journalists should never be expected to act as an on-call branch of law enforcement. We report in the public interest, not in the interest of ongoing police investigations,” said Nick Taylor-Vaisey, President of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ). “Sources who share sensitive documents with journalists must have confidence that those journalists can protect that information. The recent ruling in Ontario could set a dangerous precedent, and certainly threatens press freedom.”
“As one of the world’s strongest democracies, Canada should set a positive example of protecting journalists’ sources, not the other way around,” said Delphine Halgand, US Director of Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “ Where is press freedom headed in Canada if the police can easily obtain notes and recordings from journalists?”
“This would mean a reporter could go to jail just for doing the job Canadians expect them to do. It’s outrageous in a country that prides itself on freedom of expression and a free press,” said Carmel Smyth, President of Canadian Media Guild.
By compromising the trust between journalists and their sources, this decision undermines both free expression and national security. The Canadian government must ensure the integrity of journalistic work is protected and journalists can freely operate while protecting their sources without facing the prospect of legal sanction.
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) monitors, defends and reports on free expression and access to information in Canada and abroad. Rooted in the field of journalism, CJFE promotes a free media as essential to a fair and open society. CJFE boldly champions the free expression rights of all people, and encourages and supports individuals and groups in the protection of their own and others’ free expression rights. cjfe.org. This story was originally published on the CJFE website, and is republished with their permission.