Two legal cases involving journalists have press freedom advocates worried about police overreach and inadequate protections for reporters in Canada.
In one case, a Newfoundland reporter is facing criminal charges for following protesters who were violating a court injunction into an energy project construction site. In the second, a Quebec journalist was ordered on Thursday by a court to reveal her confidential source.
“These cases happening at once put a spotlight on some serious issues in press freedom in Canada that are all extremely concerning, and should have everyone in Canada who cares about press freedom and free expression very worried,” said Duncan Pike of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.
The two cases of police and courts targeting journalists have made headlines despite favourable decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada and the federal government designed to protect journalistic sources, said Stephane Giroux, president of the Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists.
“There’s no longer a week that goes by where the courts or police [don’t] try to force the media’s hand one way or another,” Giroux told VICE News. “We find ourselves constantly on the defensive.”
‘CHARGES FOR REPORTING THE STORY’
In what’s believed to be an unprecedented scenario in Canada, reporter Justin Brake is facing criminal and civil charges for following a group of Indigenous protesters into the controversial Muskrat Falls power project site in Newfoundland.
Brake, reporting for Newfoundland news outlet The Independent was covering protests against the hydroelectric dam in October of 2016, when he filmed protesters going through a locked gate to enter the project site, violating a court order.
“He’s facing criminal charges essentially [for] reporting a story,” said Pike, describing the case.
While other media stayed behind, Brake followed the protesters inside, publishing stories and live streaming their occupation of the workers’ camp over the next few days.
Experts say he’s the only reporter to be charged both criminally and civilly for reporting on a matter of public interest in Canada. Earlier this month, a provincial judge ruled that criminal charges of mischief and disobeying a court order against Brake would go ahead, dismissing a request from Brake’s lawyer to stay the criminal proceedings.
“It’s another sign of police overreach, and police not understanding the media’s job,” said Giroux. “The Supreme Court has already established that journalists have a right to do their work,” he added, arguing the case is “another sign that freedom of the press is in danger in Canada.”
Brake currently works for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) in Halifax. He’s now waiting for a decision on another appeal to have the civil charges dropped.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Brake recalled how he decided to follow the protesters in, after having spent weeks in the area interviewing people about their opposition to the project.
“This was me recognizing a major story and making a decision to cover it. I didn’t think anybody would try to apply that injunction to me, recognizing that I was there as a reporter,” he told the Globe. “I took comfort in knowing that we have press freedom enshrined in our constitution and this was a story.”
QUEBEC JOURNALIST MUST REVEAL SOURCE
Meanwhile in Quebec, a Quebec Superior Court judge ruled that Radio-Canada reporter Marie-Maude Denis must reveal her source in the corruption trial of the province’s former Liberal deputy premier after Nathalie Normandeau and her co-accused argued that Denis’s reporting had infringed on their right to a fair trial. While a lower court had sided with Denis, the Superior Court judge ruled Denis must testify about her sources, saying that the public interest in a fair trial outweighs a federal law protecting journalistic sources adopted by Ottawa last fall.
Radio-Canada plans to appeal the decision, which came the same day that prosecutors dropped separate charges against another reporter who asked a woman for an interview.
Gatineau police arrested Radio-Canada reporter Antoine Trépanier after a woman named Yvonne Dubé complained that he was harassing her. Trépanier called Dubé twice and emailed her once to get comment for a story, a standard journalistic practice as Dubé was the subject of his story. Dubé then complained to police.
The police, who never got Trépanier’s version of events, have not apologized for arresting the journalist. But they have since admitted to making a mistake by arresting him based solely on Dubé’s complaint.
These incidents and legal cases happening simultaneously should raise alarms for the public at large, press freedom advocates say.
“In the past decade, news organizations have become weaker and weaker financially and and it makes it harder to fight back,” said Giroux. “If you’re an independent reporter, if you’re working for a small publication or radio station without financial means, you can be silenced with a couple of legal letters, and that’s it.”
“People need to understand that if the media lose their right to investigate and to question the government, people need to realize that they will live in a society without any mechanism for oversight, without any mechanism for checks and balances,” he continued.