We thought about starting this editorial with a defiant "journalism is under attack" statement. And that's true. But what we're also feeling today is a profound sense of disappointment—that our society has failed to recognize the importance of a free and independent press.
This morning the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against VICE Canada and VICE national security reporter Ben Makuch, siding with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s demand to access Makuch’s notes relating to a series of interviews he conducted with an alleged ISIS member in 2014. Prosecutors for Canada’s national police force argued they needed the notes to build a case against Farah Shirdon, a Calgary man who allegedly joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2014. The US military says he was killed in an airstrike in 2015.
Lawyers for VICE Canada argued unsuccessfully through three levels of court that the RCMP is fishing for information and is effectively forcing a journalist to be an agent of the state. With this court decision hanging in the balance for years, Makuch has continued to produce fearless and important journalism on sensitive and often dangerous topics. Today’s decision will no doubt have a chilling effect on both sources, who may be reluctant to talk to reporters, and on journalists themselves, who could be less inclined to report on sensitive issues.
While our lawyers lost, we strongly believe that the journalism—which is already under attack across the globe—needs to be free from state intervention.
The last few years have been difficult ones for journalism, with both state and non-state actors using insidious methods to undermine independent journalism, from US President Donald Trump calling journalists “the enemy of the people,” to Russian trolls creating fake news on Facebook, to the state-sponsored killings of journalists. The current environment is both physically dangerous for journalists and existentially troubling for a healthy democracy.
Even in Canada, where Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has spoken about the right of the media to do its job and his government recently announced $600 million in funding for media organizations, we have seen other disturbing incursions into this work. Justin Brake, a reporter with the Aboriginal People’s Television Network, is facing criminal charges over a story he covered, and Quebec police were found to have spied on several journalists in that province.
It should go without saying: we are all better off when journalism operates freely, without interference from the state. Otherwise, leaders remain unchecked, massive corporations undermine elections, and the stories of the most vulnerable members of society remain untold. This might seem like hyperbole, but a quick glance at the recent headlines in any major publication should serve as proof that these things are happening.
Fair and critical reporting on governments, institutions and police is a central tenet of our journalism at VICE. Today’s ruling won’t change that. We won’t be intimidated away from reporting on power brokers globally, and covering the stories that matter.