Journalist object of government surveillance in Canada

Thursday, June 11, 1998

Journalist object of government surveillance in Canada

11 June 1998

A television journalist has received notice from government authorities that she has been the object of surveillance. Janice Johnston, a reporter with CFRN News in Edmonton (in the western Canadian province of Alberta), received a registered letter stating that she had been the object of an interception of private communications between 27 January and 28 March 1998. The letter is signed by Chief Crown Prosecutor Gary McQuaig, who reports directly to Alberta's Justice Minister, Jon Havelock. The letter does not indicate which governmental body did the surveillance, which communications were intercepted, nor which methods of surveillance were used against Johnston.

It appears that the surveillance may have been in connection with a story Johnston aired in 1997 dealing with Edmonton's police commission and an internal police investigation into alleged criminal connections of one of its members. Johnston's source for the story was a secret police report which was leaked to her. Shortly after the report aired, Johnston's newsroom was raided by police, armed with a search warrant. The police demanded that Johnston turn over the secret police report, which she did.

Johnston told the Canadian Television Network (CTV) that she "felt sick" when she received the letter, adding that "never in a million years did I think someone would be (phone) tapping me", she said.

The interception of a private citizen's communications can be legally authorized by a judge in Canada, but only where the requesting government agency has shown reasonable grounds for the surveillance. Johnston, however, has no right to view the documents outlining the grounds upon which the order for surveillance was made. Those documents are sealed.

Under the Canadian law which permits this type of surveillance, individuals who have had their communications intercepted must be officially informed of it. Journalists have no greater expectation of privacy than any other citizen, and can thus be subjected to this law. Jed Kahane, a reporter with CTV, which has reported on the case, told CCPJ that this appears to be the first time in Canada that a journalist has been notified that they have had their private communications intercepted.

While the surveillance of Johnston's private communications appears to be legal, CCPJ believes the use of this law against journalists will have a chilling effect on freedom of the press. According to Wayne Sharpe, CCPJ's Executive Director, "the message sent by this law to journalists is one of intimidation. Although the authorities' conduct may fall within Canadian law, their strong-arm tactics jeopardize the freedom of journalists to inform the public about the conduct of public officials, a freedom guaranteed under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is difficult to imagine circumstances that could justify spying on journalists in the course of their work."