VICE News is fighting an attempt by the RCMP — Canada's federal police force — to obtain "any notes and all records of communications" between VICE News reporter, Ben Makuch, and former Calgary resident-turned-Islamic State (IS) militant, Farah Mohamed Shirdon.
In February of this year, the RCMP entered VICE Media's offices in both Toronto and Montreal and served Vice Media and Makuch with a production order. In Canada, a production order is similar to a search warrant.
Up until this week, VICE News was prohibited from reporting on the RCMP's production order due to a court-ordered sealing order. VICE is contesting the production and sealing orders in court, on the principles of protecting any and all sources, protecting freedom of the press, and to avoid the situation wherein the Canadian news media becomes a veritable investigative arm of the law.
Makuch has been a full-time journalist at VICE since 2014 and was a contributor dating back to 2012. He has exclusively reported on the Canadian military's collaboration with Academi (formerly known as Blackwater), the rise of the Canadian arms trade, and has closely followed the activities of known IS militants online. Prior to VICE, he worked at The Canadian Press.
Makuch's ongoing reporting around IS militants led him to notice a suspected Canadian member of the IS who was particularly active online: Farah Mohamed Shirdon.
Makuch was able to contact Shirdon, under one of his online aliases, through Twitter and KIK Messenger — an instant messaging platform for smartphones with over 14 million users. Through Makuch's exchanges with Shirdon, VICE was one of the first organizations in the world to communicate directly with IS via social media. This provided an unprecedented view into the intentions and motivations of IS members. Makuch wrote two articles for VICE based on his communications with Shirdon, which led to the production order.
In October of last year, just before the tragic Parliament Hill shooting in Ottawa, Shirdon told Makuch: "Canadians at home shall face the brunt of the retaliation. If you are in this crusader alliance against Islam and Muslims you shall see your streets filled with blood Inshaa Allah."
Makuch's reporting on Shirdon also led VICE CEO and founder Shane Smith to conduct an exclusive Skype interview with Shirdon himself. That interview was incendiary enough to cause the RCMP to charge Shirdon with the "commission of an indictable offence for a terrorist group" after Shirdon warned of an Islamic State attack in New York City.
In conversation with Smith in September 2014, Shirdon claimed "a lot of brothers" are in New York City "mobilizing right now."
The RCMP has charged Shirdon with five other terrorism-related offenses in absentia. He is believed to still be living among IS.
"VICE's treatment by the RCMP is completely reprehensible," said Tom Henheffer, executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. "Journalists are not lackies for the police and to use us that way is a totally unjustifiable violation of free expression and privacy rights. Going further and slapping a journalism outlet with a months-long gag order is even more absurd. This is not an effective way to fight terrorism, this is not how institutions in a free and democratic society are supposed to behave, and this sets a dangerous precedent for the free press in Canada that must not be repeated."
VICE News will be in court on Jan. 11 to argue its case against the Crown, which is representing the RCMP in this matter.
Patrick McGuire is the Head of Content for VICE Canada and a member of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.