Press freedom coalition calls on Canadian government to pass shield law protecting journalists' sources

Monday, December 05, 2016
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The printing press. PHOTO: George/Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The following letter was sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould, and Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale.


We, the undersigned, represent individuals and organizations whose lives and work depend upon freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and the protection of sources. We believe that press freedom is being steadily eroded in Canada, and that your government must take urgent action to prevent further harm.


Canada recently dropped ten places in Reporter Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, thanks to what the organization called a “dark age for journalism” under our previous federal government. Despite the Prime Minister’s strong rhetoric in support of journalism, under your government there have been multiple press freedom violations in Canada. Based on current trends, and without decisive action, the “dark age” looks set to continue.


We see this in the spying on Patrick Lagacé and his colleagues by police, the potential jail sentence faced by VICE News reporter Ben Makuch, the possible trespassing charges facing Justin Brake for his coverage of protests at Muskrat Falls, and the seizure of the Journal de Montreal’s Michael Nguyen’s laptop, among other cases. Are there other serious violations of press freedom in Canada, more journalists being spied on? Because of the lack of effective oversight of our police and surveillance agencies, Canadians simply don’t know.


On November 16, Minister Goodale stated in the House of Commons that the government is reassessing safeguards for press freedom and that you are “welcoming any input from journalists, lawyers, or others if they have suggestions to make about how the law needs to be improved.” Prime Minister Trudeau has likewise stated that the government is open to discussion as to how to improve protections for press freedom in Canada.


We are encouraged by your openness on this matter, and to this end wish to highlight several simple changes that we urge the government to make to ensure that press freedom and free expression are properly protected.


  1. Pass a press shield law
    The federal government must pass press shield laws that prevent journalists from being compelled to reveal confidential sources. This will ensure reporters like Ben Makuch never again face jail sentences for simply doing their job, and that whistleblowers remain safe from outside retribution. From the UK to Germany to the majority of U.S. states and Australia, almost every western democracy has such laws. Canada must enter the 21st century and adopt these protections. Senator Claude Carignan has introduced a private member’s bill that amends the Canada Evidence Act and the Criminal Code to protect the confidentiality of journalistic sources, and we urge the government to work with him to see that these protections are implemented.
  2. Fix the warrant and production order process for journalists
    The recent surveillance of journalists in Montreal and Ottawa reveals that the warrant and production order process in Canada is badly broken, with justices of the peace too often rubber-stamping warrant and production order requests without weighing the public interest or their constitutional consequences. This is easily fixed. We ask federal and provincial governments to require that any warrant or production order for surveillance of journalists be requested by prosecutors, as opposed to police, and approved by judges, as opposed to justices of the peace. Journalists should also be given the higher level of protection afforded to lawyers, judges, and legislators.  This will strike a crucial balance, allowing the press to remain free from unjust surveillance without creating an undue burden on police forces.
  3. Amend Bill C-13 to remove surveillance powers
    The federal government must repeal the dangerous surveillance provisions contained in Bill C-13 (the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act). This Bill masqueraded as legislation to combat cyberbullying, but was in fact used to slip controversial lawful access provisions into Canadian law. C-13  greatly lowered the threshold of surveillance warrants. It allows police to request warrants on the standard of reasonable suspicion that an offence may be committed, instead of the usual requirement of reasonable grounds that an offence has been committed and that the search will provide evidence of it. It also allowed police to spread the net of surveillance, from targeted, time-limited wiretaps on individuals to permanent, broad-scale digital surveillance of entire groups. The Act must be amended.
  4. Launch a national inquiry into spying on journalists
    The federal government must launch a full public inquiry at the national level into police and intelligence agencies spying on journalists. You have stated that you were satisfied by assurances from the Commissioner of the RCMP and the Director of CSIS that these agencies were not conducting any surveillance operations targeting journalists. We are puzzled by your willingness—especially in the wake of a ruling from a Federal Court that CSIS “breached its duty of candour” in keeping hidden a metadata surveillance program—to accept such declarations at face value. Certainly Canadians have no reason to do so. Public trust has been broken, and a full public airing of the conduct of police and intelligence agencies is the only way it can be restored.


We request the opportunity to meet with you on an urgent basis to discuss these changes, and further steps that the government can take to protect press freedom in Canada. Around the world, journalists are facing unprecedented threats from authoritarian governments, terrorist groups, and oppressive laws. Canada has the potential to be a global leader in pushing back on these trends, but we are instead lagging far behind. It is time for action.


Thank you for your attention and we look forward to your reply.


Yours sincerely,


Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Reporters Without Borders
CWA-SCA Canada
Newspapers Canada
Association for Progressive Communications (APC)
Broadbent Institute
Fédération nationale des communications (FNC-CSN)
Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec (FPJQ)
Ad IDEM (Advocates In Defence of Expression in Media)
Centre for Free Expression
Canadian Association of Journalists
National NewsMedia Council
May First/People Link


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