Ottawa should pro­tect press

Toronto Star - - CANADA -

When it was re­vealed last week that Montreal po­lice had been spy­ing on Patrick La­gacé, a colum­nist for La Presse news­pa­per, in an ef­fort to un­cover his sources, we de­cried the prac­tice as a “trou­bling threat to free­dom of the press” that was “un­prece­dented in Cana­dian his­tory.” It turns out we were only half right: it was in­deed trou­bling, but hardly un­prece­dented.

In the week since, it has come to light that, in fact, at least 10 other re­porters in Que­bec have had their cell­phones surveilled by lo­cal or pro­vin­cial po­lice since 2008, some for more than five years. In the wake of these alarm­ing dis­clo­sures, the prov­ince has an­nounced that it will launch a pub­lic in­quiry into press free­dom and po­lice sur­veil­lance of jour­nal­ists.

That’s a wel­come devel­op­ment, es­pe­cially as cru­cial ques­tions re­main about the pos­si­ble com­plic­ity of some politi­cians and se­nior po­lice of­fi­cials in the spy­ing. But the prob­lem is not limited to Que­bec. The rev­e­la­tions have also ex­posed a gap in the fed­eral law that pro­tects jour­nal­ists and their sources — one that Ottawa should move quickly to bridge.

It should not sur­prise us that po­lice were tempted to spy on jour­nal­ists to ex­pe­dite their in­ves­ti­ga­tions. What’s more con­cern­ing is that sev­eral jus­tices is­sued war­rants that, based on what we know, seem to be in­con­sis­tent with the spirit of the Supreme Court’s rul­ings on the pro­tec­tion of jour­nal­is­tic sources.

In each case, the jour­nal­ist be­ing mon­i­tored was sus­pected of noth­ing un­to­ward. He or she was privy to no im­mi­nent threats to pub­lic safety. Rather, the jour­nal­ists in ques­tion were sim­ply do­ing their job: telling sto­ries that hap­pened to be em­bar­rass­ing to the po­lice or to govern­ment. The war­rants ap­pear to have been sought to iden­tify ex­ist­ing whistle­blow­ers and in­tim­i­date prospec­tive ones. Given the chill­ing ef­fect such sur­veil­lance is likely to have on the me­dia, it’s hard to con­clude that, on bal­ance, democ­racy was well served by the de­ci­sions.

More­over, the Supreme Court has said jour­nal­ists should be able to pro­tect their sources if they can show do­ing so is in the pub­lic in­ter­est. No such op­por­tu­nity was pro­vided to them. It seems that nei­ther leg­is­la­tion nor ju­rispru­dence pro­vides suf­fi­cient pro­tec­tion for the jour­nal­ist-source re­la­tion­ship that the top court has said serves a “vi­tal role” in democ­racy.

No one would speak to a re­porter if they be­lieved he or she was un­able to pro­tect a source or, worse, was col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion on be­half of po­lice. Jour­nal­ists must be free to seek the truth from all man­ner of sources — whistle­blow­ers and crim­i­nals in­cluded — to keep the pub­lic in­formed on the is­sues that mat­ter.

That’s why Ottawa should take se­ri­ously the sug­ges­tion of Sen. An­dré Pratte, a for­mer ed­i­to­rial page editor at La Presse, who is call­ing on the govern­ment to con­vene a Se­nate-Com­mons com­mit­tee to study the cur­rent safe­guards for jour­nal­ists and their sources and quickly sug­gest im­prove­ments. The ex­ist­ing leg­is­la­tion was writ­ten be­fore tech­nol­ogy vastly ex­panded both the set of jour­nal­is­tic tools and the state’s abil­ity to spy on them. It should be up­dated for the dig­i­tal world.

The re­cent sto­ries out of Que­bec raise im­por­tant ques­tions about trou­bling po­lice prac­tices in that prov­ince and to what ex­tent politi­cians were in­volved. A pub­lic in­quiry is the right re­sponse. But the pro­tec­tion in law of free­dom of the press is a mat­ter of na­tional im­por­tance. Ottawa should do its part.

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