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Message from Canada – Hands off our sources

Protest picture

Participants stand in the shape of an eye to tell Trudeau that they are watching him and waiting for action. Similar actions took place across Canada. This one was in Toronto.  -  © Matt Currie/CJFE

8 March 2017

Stuart Laidlaw

Journalists in Canada are awaiting a judge’s decision that could have a chilling impact on their ability to do their job. VICE Canada reporter Ben Makuch was in Ontario Court of Appeal last month to fight a court order from the Mounties to turn over his electronic communications with a Canadian ISIS fighter in Syria, who caught the public’s eye when he ripped up his Canadian passport in a YouTube video before throwing it into a fire.

Makuch tracked the guy down via the Kik app on his phone. He wanted to know who this guy was, and his motivation for joining ISIS and burning his passport. The answers, and Makuch’s story, helped all of us understand what motivates some young Canadians to put themselves in such danger to join ISIS.

It’s a question every western democracy struggles to answer, the UK included. It’s an important question, and without some assurance that Makuch would be able to protect his source, there is no way the story could have happened. That just makes our society less safe. Without knowing the motivation of such young people, we can’t hope to stop more from joining.

A functioning democracy relies on a free press. We all know that.

Having a free press means ensuring that journalists do not risk becoming an arm of either the state or its police.

A free press needs access to sources. But every time a source sits down with a reporter, or sends a message on Kik or any other app, for that matter, that person must be able to trust the reporter to tell his or her story accurately and in the proper context. And they must trust that the reporter won’t put them at any undue risk by turning over to police any damning information.

In the end, that will only hurt the ability of all journalists to get the stories that need to be heard. As Tom Henheffer of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression said: "If journalists are an arm’s length office of some enforcement agency, that's going to hurt their ability to get information from these groups, whether they be terrorists or anyone else." 

CJFE is leading a coalition of media organizations in Canada that have united to support Makuch, including journalists unions Unifor and the Canadian Media Guild, both members of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

Makuch was served with a court order in March 2015 for copies of his messages with the Canadian ISIS fighter. He refused, and fought the case it court, losing all the way to the Ontario Court of Appeal this past February. Arguments were made through a day in court, and we await the court’s decision. This is the last stop before the Supreme Court of Canada, which would have the ultimate judicial say in the matter. 

It need not have the last legal say, however. The coalition put together by CJFE is calling on the federal government of Justin Trudeau to bring in a shield law to protect whistleblowers and other journalists’ sources. We are also calling the his government to take action to ensure that police spying on journalists – which came to light late last year with revelations that a Le Devoir journalist’s phone was hacked to track down his sources – be stopped.

Makuch’s case and the spying have gained worldwide attention. That’s good. We will keep up the pressure until journalists in Canada have the safeguards they need to do their jobs.

Stuart Laidlaw @stuart_laidlaw is a national rep at the Canadian union Unifor, working in the communications department. He is also the former rep at Canada's largest daily newspaper, the Toronto Star.

Tags: , canada, ifj, protection of sources, solidarity, vice, ethics, surveillance