Global News videographer Jeremy Cohn, tackled and arrested by Hamilton Police on May 16, 2017. PHOTO: Barry Gray. Used with permission.
By Nathan Munn
“We respect journalists in this country. They ask tough questions, and they’re supposed to.”
—Justin Trudeau in 2015, addressing a Liberal supporter who heckled a journalist for asking Trudeau a question.
“People have died for the freedom of the press. It’s a fundamental freedom.”
—Québec Premier Philippe Couillard in 2016, addressing revelations that police in the province monitored journalists to uncover the identity of confidential sources.
When it comes to defending the freedom of the press, our elected representatives talk a good game. But when called upon to take concrete action to protect journalists from the overreach of law enforcement, corporate censorship and other threats to the free press, politicians often choose to sit on the sidelines as the few protections Canadian journalists have under the law are eroded through police actions and dangerous legal precedents. This puts your right to know at risk, and makes it harder to hold those in power accountable for their actions. This is a clear threat to the health of our democracy.
This is why CJFE has stepped up on multiple fronts to demand that journalists be given the protections they need to safely and effectively do their jobs. Any less would send a message of obedience to power to our fellow journalists in other countries who face repression—or worse—on a daily basis.
We are seeing results, but it will take determination and endurance to defend Canadian journalism in the long term. It will also take more resources, and your support. That’s why we’re launching an ambitious crowdfund to sustain the fight into 2017. Now more than ever we need your support to continue our work.
Below are some of the most important press freedom battles that have played out across the country since 2016, and what CJFE is doing to safeguard the future of journalism in Canada.
Justin Brake faces up to 10 years in prison for reporting on a protest.
In October 2016, Indigenous Canadian activists occupied the site of a controversial hydroelectric project in Newfoundland to protest the toxic pollution resulting from construction. Journalist Justin Brake of The Independent followed the activists on site, becoming the only reporter to tell the inside story of the protest. He left after being named in a court order requiring everyone to leave or face arrest. But that didn’t stop the RCMP from charging Brake with mischief and disobeying an order of the court, charges that carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and which could set a disturbing precedent for the prosecution of journalists in Canada.
What CJFE is doing:
CJFE has partnered with Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) and APTN to intervene in Brake’s appeal case. CJFE, RSF and CAJ also launched a public petition to have all charges against Brake withdrawn. To date, more than 2,300 Canadians have signed. We’ve also written to the Crown Attorney, the RCMP and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to make it clear that the charges against Brake are unacceptable and must be dropped.
Montreal police tracked the phone of Patrick Lagacé to find out the identities of his confidential sources.
Late in 2016, Montréal police admitted that they had monitored the communications and movements of La Presse journalist Patrick Lagacé for months through his iPhone. Lagacé wasn’t under investigation for a crime; the police just wanted to find out the identities of Lagacé’s confidential sources for stories he had written about internal problems in the Montréal police force. Within weeks it was revealed that Québec’s provincial police force had obtained warrants to track the phone calls of at least seven other journalists, sparking outrage and ongoing political fallout. As Lagacé has stated, police surveillance of journalists to discover their confidential sources is “indefensible.”
What is CJFE doing:
CJFE partnered with civil and media rights organizations to demand that the federal government launch a public inquiry into the freedom of the press in Canada. We are leading efforts to pass a press shield law (Bill S-231) that would protect journalists from being spied on in the future, travelling to Ottawa to lobby the government, and writing editorials in national newspapers. We also organized a nationwide rally for press freedom and launched a letter-writing campaign to the Prime Minister. The spying on journalists that took place in Québec perfectly demonstrates why journalists in Canada need to be protected by legislation, and shows just how precarious the situation is for our free press.
Ben Makuch faces a court ruling forcing him to hand over his communications with a source to the RCMP.
In 2015, VICE News reporter Ben Makuch broke a critically important story when he interviewed Farah Shirdon, an alleged ISIS fighter from Calgary, providing an unprecedented look into the motivations of a Canadian who joined a terrorist organization. The RCMP responded by serving VICE News and Makuch with a production order demanding all records of Makuch’s communications with Shirdon. The order attempts to repurpose Makuch’s journalism as a de facto police investigation, a practice that free press advocates around the world recognize as detrimental to both journalism and democracy. VICE and Makuch appealed the order, but an Ontario Superior Court judge upheld it in March 2017. They are now appealing to the Supreme Court.
What is CJFE doing:
CJFE is acting as an intervener in the court battle between VICE News and the Crown, alongside other advocacy groups. Together we fought to support Makuch’s position before the court and launched a petition to demand that the production orders be dismissed by the courts. We rallied outside the courthouse to show solidarity with his fight to protect press freedom, and held a press conference on Parliament Hill that received international media attention for his case.
Nguyen had his laptop seized by Québec police for reporting a story about a provincial judge.
In June 2016, reporter Michael Nguyen of Le Journal de Montréal wrote a story about a formal complaint against Judge Suzanne Vadboncoeur, alleging the judge had berated and insulted a Montreal police constable and his colleagues. Nguyen discovered a video of the incident on the Québec’s judicial council's website through a simple Google search, but the council alleged to police that Nguyen had acted illegally in obtaining the video—a claim that was later proven false by La Presse—leading Québec provincial police to obtain a search warrant for Nguyen’s laptop and seizing it from Le Journal de Montréal’s offices. Despite the integrity of Nguyen’s story and his investigative methods, a Québec Superior Court judge upheld the legality of the search warrant and dismissed an appeal.
What is CJFE doing:
As Nguyen’s story came to light, we strongly condemned the actions of Québec’s provincial police and judicial council. We urged the council to return the seized laptop to Nguyen and to not examine its contents.
This year Canada fell four spots in Reporters Without Border’s World Press Freedom Index, out of the top 20 countries for the first time in our history. While 2016 was a year of setbacks for journalism in Canada, 2017 is shaping up to be even worse. CJFE will continue to be at the front lines of press freedom fights across the country, and we’re committed to defending the work of courageous journalists everywhere. But it takes significant resources to stand up to the government and police when our freedoms are threatened. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue our work.
Nathan Munn is a writer and editor based in Montreal, Quebec.