A good day for press freedom

Posted on October 5, 2017 in Governance Debates

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial – Canada is finally joining the U.S., the UK, France and other countries in providing a legal safeguard for the privileged relationship between reporter and source.
Oct. 5, 2017.   By

The ability of journalists to hold those in power to account often depends on the willingness of sources to speak. Yet, until this week, unlike most other comparable countries, Canada was without a so-called shield law to protect journalistic sources and, in this way, journalism’s democratic function.

On Wednesday, Members of Parliament passed the Journalistic Source Protection Act, which originated as a private member’s bill in the Senate, marking a major step forward for press freedom. We will finally be joining the United States, Britain, France and others in providing a legal safeguard for the privileged relationship between source and reporter.

If there was any doubt that such a law was needed, revelations over the last year have surely obliterated it. Last October, Patrick Lagacé, a columnist at Montreal’s La Presse newspaper, reported that police had been spying on him for months, tracking his whereabouts and monitoring his calls and texts in an apparent effort to identify one of his sources.

At the time, we described this as an assault on press freedom without precedent in this country. We were wrong. In the days afterward, it was revealed that at least 10 reporters in Quebec had had their cellphone communication secretly surveilled by police. Then, before a parliamentary committee, a senior official of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service said it was possible his agency had spied on Canadian journalists in the past.

Meanwhile, the courts upheld a demand from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that a Vice News reporter hand over background material in a terrorism investigation. It’s no wonder Reporters Without Borders ranked Canada 22nd in the world on press freedom, down four spots from the previous year.

As the Supreme Court ruled in 1991, “The press should not be turned into an investigative arm of the police.” The new law will finally entrench this principle in the Criminal Code and the Canada Evidence Act by, among other things, specifying that police can gain access to journalistic source material only as a last resort.

Under the new law, state agencies seeking such information will be required to convince a superior court judge that there is no other “reasonable” means to obtain it, and that the public interest served by the investigation justifies the infringement on press freedom. If a warrant or production order is issued, the journalists involved will be notified and granted the right to appeal.

The case of Patrick Lagacé, in which justices of the peace issued several warrants unbeknownst to the journalist or his organization, exposed an acute threat to freedom of the press and the health of our democracy. The new shield law is a welcome and overdue protection.


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