Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s First Test of Journalistic Freedoms: The RCMP vs. VICE

The politician has been unabashedly pro-journalist in his statements, but will he make legal protections for reporters a priority?

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Nov 5 2015, 5:50pm
Patrick McGuire is VICE Canada's head of content.

On October 5—just two weeks before the federal election resulted in a victory for Justin Trudeau after nearly ten long years of Conservative rule—I sat down with the Liberal leader and some of our VICE News staff for a town hall interview in Toronto.

My final question to Trudeau that evening was around media access to the Prime Minister's Office. Stephen Harper's reign was a dark age for Canadian journalists who were consistently blocked from asking him about pretty much anything at all. And Trudeau's answer was a clear departure from Harper's policies:

"The fact is, and people forget about this, one of the reasons why we've had ten years of a government that hasn't done a very good job at the very basic things... is that it has marginalized so much of the media's capacity to ask compelling questions of them, it's minimized its contact with real people, and the ability of Canadians to hold their government to account... That's not what a digital, engaged democracy is all about."

Ten days later, Trudeau held a press conference in Montreal where he was asked a tough question by a reporter regarding advice given by the Liberal Party's national campaign co-chairman to the oil and gas industry on how to successfully lobby a Trudeau government.

The question was met with boos and groans from Trudeau's own supporters, to which Trudeau shouted in response: "Hey! Hey! We have respect for journalists in this country. They ask tough questions and they're supposed to. OK?"

For the Canadian media, that statement was a breath of fresh air. But we at VICE Media in Canada are undergoing a legal battle with the RCMP—Canada's national police force—that will serve as Trudeau's first true test of his pro-journalism rhetoric.

Farah Mohammed Shirdon

In February, VICE Media and one of our national security reporters, Ben Makuch, were served with a production order by the RCMP. A production order is similar to a search warrant, and it specifically seeks to get "any notes and all records of communications" between Makuch and one of his sources.

That source is Farah Mohamed Shirdon, a suspected Islamic State militant and former resident of Calgary. VICE was under a gag order and prevented by the courts from discussing this action from the RCMP for eight months. We finally were able to break the news on VICE News last week.

Makuch initially came into contact with Shirdon in the spring of 2014, when he was one of the first journalists on the planet to notice that individuals purporting to be part of the Islamic State were highly active on social media through Twitter, Instagram, and an instant messaging platform called Kik.

Shirdon and Makuch began a journalistic correspondence, which led to several articles where the most explosive details of their conversations were published. Shane Smith, VICE's founder and CEO, also interviewed Shirdon over Skype. In that video interview, Shirdon threatened the United States. In an interview with Makuch shortly thereafter, Shirdon threatened Canada.

VICE is not protecting the identity of Shirdon. It's well known, through our interviews with Shirdon and through other media outlets, who he is and what he looks like. We've shown the world his face.

We are not holding back information that is relevant to public safety. In fact, one of our interviews was enough for the RCMP to charge Shirdon in absentia with: "Commission of an indictable offence for a terrorist group. (Sec 83.2) – Relating to the utterance of threats made on or about September 23, 2014 during an interview with Vice Media."

Through their production order, the RCMP is attempting to use VICE as an investigative arm of its operations. Complying with such a demand would puncture the trust we are able to maintain with our sources, who often fall on the wrong side of the tracks legally and ethically. Journalists need to speak to people like that in order to get the stories the public needs to read.

This trust between sources and journalists allows for whistleblowers and activists to come forward with information they would rather share with a reporter than, say, a cop. Speaking to enemies of one's state also allows the public to gain a perspective on the point of view of the very people it vows to destroy.

So that's why we are fighting in court to have this production order dismissed. We feel particularly confident in our position because this is not about protecting the identity or location of a supposedly dangerous person; the RCMP clearly believes it already has enough information on Shirdon to charge him with several terrorism related crimes. I also have to presume they have enough evidence on Shirdon to trust these charges will stick—if they are able to extract him alive from the Islamic State, that is.

Now that Trudeau has been sworn into the Prime Minister's Office, I would hope this issue falls on his radar. His stance on Bill C-51, the controversial omnibus bill of new anti-terror legislation, has been non-committal. He claims to want to amend it, but has no firm specifics on what those amendments entail. Conversely, he is unabashedly pro-journalist. I would hope that his support of over-reaching anti-terror legislation, and his vocal advocacy of press freedoms, will not clash in this instance.

It was just last week that British police invoked new anti-terror laws in that country to seize the laptop of a BBC journalist who had spoken to British individuals who fled to join the Islamic State.

Our case against the RCMP is a serious test for Trudeau and his stance on the media. While the source in question here, an alleged Islamic State militant, is obviously one of the most controversial sources we could speak with, the issue rests completely on the barrier that needs to be upheld between an independent press and the authorities.

We look forward to getting Trudeau's comments on this matter, and we hope our fight will set a positive precedent for the press in Canada. As it stands, we do not even have blanket protection for journalists when it comes to protecting their sources in this country, despite many other western democracies having media shield laws. New Zealand's media shield law goes so far as to protect bloggers.

If Trudeau is serious about improving the relationship between Canada's federal government and the media, he should not only closely examine the ramifications of an RCMP victory in our case, but also at legislation that prevents journalists from enjoying a truly democratic freedom of the press in the first place.

Follow Patrick McGuire on Twitter.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article referred to Justin Trudeau as a Labour politician. He is in fact a member of the Liberal party.

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