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Canadian journalists push for ‘shield law’ to protect sources

La Presse journalist Patrick Lagace (left), journalist Mohamed Fahmy, and Executive Director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression Tom Henheffer (right) listen to VICE News journalist Ben Makuch speak about his experiences during a news conference on police surveillance and greater protection for journalists in Ottawa, Wednesday November 16, 2016.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Journalists and parliamentarians are putting pressure on the Liberal government to enhance the protection of reporters and confidential sources, calling for quick legislative changes instead of rhetorical support for the freedom of the press.

The calls flow from recent cases in which police spied on journalists to obtain information on their sources, raising questions across Canada about the quality of the judicial process for obtaining warrants.

At a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday, two journalists who are in legal battles with police authorities backed a proposal for a "shield law" that allows reporters to protect the identity of their sources and confidential information.

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"Mine is just one of many cases of the growing erosion of press freedom in Canada," said Ben Makuch, a journalist for Vice News who is refusing to provide information from a confidential source to the RCMP.

Mr. Makuch faces a possible jail sentence for refusing to comply with a court order. He said the RCMP's actions have created "irreparable damage" to journalists' ability to win the trust of sources.

Patrick Lagacé, a journalist at La Presse, recently learned that the Montreal police service had obtained judicial approval to consult his phone records, tap his phone and trigger the GPS on his mobile device to track his meetings with sources. He said the Liberal government is saying all the right words in the defence of journalistic freedom, but that police officers need to face tougher requirements to go after a journalist's sources.

"The mentality of police officers is not different whether you are in Saskatchewan or British Columbia or Quebec," Mr. Lagacé said. "I am convinced that other police agencies, if they can have access to this type of information, will try to do so without asking themselves any questions."

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Also present at the news conference were journalist and author Mohamed Fahmy, who was imprisoned for more than a year in Egypt because of his reporting, and Tom Henheffer, the executive-director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

Mr. Henheffer said he distrusts agencies such as the RCMP and CSIS that have increased means to monitor electronic communications, and that new laws are needed to curtail their powers.

"The fact is the state apparatus and the surveillance capabilities of the state are absolutely enormous, and we cannot fully protect ourselves against them," he said. "That is why there needs to be a change at the legislative level in order for us to really enjoy a free press in Canada. I don't fully trust government agencies because there is a lack of accountability, but all of that can be fixed with simple legislative changes."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has expressed his concerns over the recent revelations involving Mr. Lagacé, and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has said his government is open to toughening the rules that govern how and when the federal government can investigate members of the media.

"All of the safeguards in place at the federal level are being reassessed to make sure they are strong enough," he said in the House of Commons. "We are welcoming any input from journalists, lawyers or others if they have suggestions to make about how the law needs to be improved."

The NDP is arguing the government needs to go further and launch a public inquiry into the protection of sources at the federal level.

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"The government certainly talks a better game than the previous [Conservative government], but at the end of the day, it's the legislation that matters," NDP MP Matthew Dubé said.

Independent senator André Pratte – a former editorial writer at La Presse – has promised to table legislation if the federal government does not quickly change the rules that govern how police authorities obtain warrants to track journalists and their sources.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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