Mr. Speaker, I am rising in the House today to speak about and defend freedom of the press. I thank the sponsor of the bill, which I will support.
Canada has dropped 14 points in the World Press Freedom Index in two years, since the Liberals took office. This is alarming, and it is time to act.
Protecting the freedom of the press, particularly a journalist’s confidential sources, is vitally important, which is why I am standing in support of the intentions of this bill. However, I do have a few regrets about certain aspects of it.
Today we live in a connected world, in an era with a variety of platforms and social networks. The concept of media must evolve with the new information distribution channels and new journalistic practices. We should go with a broad definition of what a journalist is. We need to leave it up to judges to decide whether an individual was acting as a journalist or not when a disclosure request is received.
I am concerned to see that the Senate committee narrowly limited the definition, since it is unacceptable that protection of journalistic sources be given only to the traditional media. I am certain that many journalists are doing a tremendous job outside of conventional media. The NDP will therefore be submitting an amendment in committee to restore the definition of “journalist” that was in the original version of the bill.
The NDP has always been on the side of the media against attacks on their independence and has always defended press freedom. The NDP was there, on November 16, at a press conference with major Canadian media organizations to condemn the wiretapping of journalists and to defend press freedom in this country. I would like to thank my colleague from the riding of Beloeil—Chambly, who is standing up for press freedom and the protection of journalistic sources.
Where are the Liberals? The situation is troubling. The Liberal government is always shirking its responsibilities. Internationally, we see that nothing is being done to bring home Raif Badawi, who has been confined and mistreated since 2012 in Saudi prisons. Nothing is happening here at home either. Once again, Canadian citizens cannot count on their government to take the appropriate action.
Considering how often the Prime Minister makes grand pronouncements about freedom of the press, I would like to know why this bill came from the Senate, not from the government. Protecting people takes more than just good intentions. Our journalists and their sources risk their jobs and sometimes their lives to supply us with reliable information on matters of public interest. This is a serious issue that calls for serious action now.
Media in my riding are doing outstanding work. Our newspapers, Le Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe, Le Clairon, Journal Mobiles, and La Pensée de Bagot, and our radio stations, Boom Montérégie and Radio Acton, as well as our television stations, CogecoTV Saint-Hyacinthe, Maskatel, and Cooptel, are doing great work. I know them all well, I have worked with them, and I know they do top-notch work on the ground that our entire region is proud of. Every day, women and men across Canada work to keep us informed about what is going on in Quebec, Canada, and the world. That includes journalists, but it also includes sources, who often reveal vital information on matters of public interest.
Unfortunately, this reporting could be threatened if nothing is done to maintain the bonds of trust between journalists and their sources and to protect the confidentiality of these sources. Le Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe, in print since 1853, is the oldest French newspaper in America. Many residents of Saint-Hyacinthe read it, and they recognize the quality and reliability of the information in that newspaper and other local media. How can media consumers feel confident that they are well informed, knowing that print journalists are possibly being spied on by their own government? It is time we legislate to protect journalists' confidential sources and to change the way surveillance warrants are issued.
Under this bill, a justice of the peace will no longer have the authority to issue search warrants to investigate a journalist. Only a Superior Court judge would be authorized to do so, under certain conditions. This represents major progress that will provide journalists with assurances that a search warrant really is the last resort.
I would also like the Minister of Public Safety to call a public inquiry as soon as possible to get to the bottom of the issue of journalists under surveillance by the RCMP and other federal security agencies. There have been repeated incidents for many years now.
In 2007, La Presse journalist Joël-Denis Bellavance was under surveillance by the RCMP, which is completely unacceptable, and his is not the only one. In October 2016, La Presse revealed that journalist Patrick Lagacé had also been under surveillance, this time by the Montreal police. That came as no surprise given that 98% of applications for a warrant to investigate a journalist submitted by the police to a justice of the peace were granted. I think these repeated scandals raise some very serious questions about the state of freedom of the press and democracy in this country.
On November 4, 2016, after the attacks on the freedom of the press in Quebec had come to light, I asked the Minister of Public Safety in the House to tell us exactly how many journalists are being spied on. At that time, the minister said that this was not happening at the federal level.
Why then did the government not immediately launch a public inquiry in order to shed some light on the RCMP's practices regarding journalists? After all of the attacks on the freedom of the press that have occurred in recent years, Canadians have the right to call the government to account.
We need to determine the extent of the problem and establish new safeguards to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. I would also like to talk about Ben Makuch, a journalist for VICE, who could go to prison because he is refusing to reveal his sources to the RCMP. In the bill that we are examining today, there is a provision that allows journalists to refuse to disclose information if they believe that the confidentiality of their source would be threatened. This represents some progress toward stronger protections for our journalists and their sources.
We can no longer keep count of the scandals that have been uncovered here in Canada and around the world because of anonymous yet highly credible sources. For journalists to be able to investigate freely, they have to be allowed to gain the trust of their sources. Establishing this trust becomes impossible for journalists if they are forced to disclose information that might jeopardize the confidentiality of their sources.
Freedom of the press is everyone's business. It is a non-partisan issue because it is a pillar of our democracy. To ensure this freedom, journalists working coast to coast to provide quality information to the public need assurances that they will not be under surveillance. This means that their confidential sources have to be protected.
Every journalist needs to be able to investigate without fear of being watched or wiretapped. Bill S-231 is an improvement, but does not quite go as far as I had initially hoped, including in providing a broader definition of media.
This bill has the support of journalists associations across the country, of Canada's major media outlets, and lawyers who specialize in media law, as well as the Barreau du Québec. The government cannot vote against this bill. For far too long, it has been avoiding the issue and trying to shirk its responsibilities. Soon we will see whether the Liberals are the valiant defenders of freedom of the press that they claim to be or whether this was just more rhetoric.
As I said, my region is home to the oldest French-language newspaper in America, and we are very proud of it. I have been in office for several years now, first as a municipal councillor and now as an MP. I appreciate the fact that our local media can be critical of our work. I appreciate how they act as watchdogs and keep abreast of the issues.
Much of their work is in the public interest. They make sure that we spend public money appropriately and that the people's interests are properly represented. Their questions might make us squirm sometimes, but they are important for our democracy. As I often said to my fellow municipal councillors, those looking for subservient media should move to a dictatorship.
Protecting our journalists is important.