Thank you for this opportunity to appear before the Committee to present our views today, particularly on the topic of source protection, which has given rise to much passionate debate in the House of Commons. I hope your deliberations this afternoon will be more serene and harmonious.
Today, I speak on behalf of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, representing some 2,100 journalists from every kind of media all across Quebec—in other words, newspapers, radio stations, television stations and Internet media. The FPJQ represents both media executives, unionized and non-unionized journalists, freelance and independent journalists. We represent a very broad spectrum of people working in journalism.
Many of my colleagues here today are legal experts, which is not my case. As a result, I will not be able to make any specific comments on the legal issues. However, I have been working as a journalist long enough to know that the bill currently before you is an important one.
It is important for journalists, but I would say it is also important for Canadians and for the vitality of our democracy. It is a means of consolidating a fundamental right recognized in the Charter: freedom of the press. That is the reason why the FPJQ is an enthusiastic supporter of Bill C-426, which we see as a valuable opportunity to improve the quality of our democratic life.
One value is important in the world of journalism, and that is that one should normally identify one's sources publicly. We recognize that value, and it is clearly laid out in our code of ethics. Revealing one's sources is common practice for journalists. It allows our listeners and readers to assess the credibility and competency of the people speaking to them, as well as the merit of the different points of view that journalists help to disseminate.
Our code of ethics also recognizes, however, that important information may never be published if journalists do not guarantee anonymity to certain sources that agree to speak to them or provide them with documents. Important—indeed, critical—stories have become public in the past only as a result of sources having agreed to speak to journalists, knowing that they would protect them. The most famous story of that type is Watergate. Closer to home, the Globe and Mail reporter, Daniel Leblanc, got wind of the sponsorship scandal through a source that he protected. We can all agree on the tremendous public interest there is and was in publishing that research, which had the consequences we are all aware of.
At the same time, reporters who do research on delicate and potentially controversial issues have a sword of Damacles hanging over them. At all times, they run the risk of being called to testify before a court of law with respect to their research, and come under pressure to reveal the identity of their sources, or see the documents and images collected through their research seized by police.
This sword of Damocles hangs over the head not only of journalists, but of sources that trust those journalists and help them to better inform the public. Sources often take risks when they agree to speak to journalists, and could be subject to reprisals if their identity were to be revealed.
I would just like to take a few minutes to tell you the story of a journalist colleague in Quebec City who reported on the problem of asbestos contamination in Quebec government buildings in the fall of 2006. Certain employees agreed to speak with her under cover of anonymity and describe what they had experienced. A member of the union's health and safety committee also agreed to speak to her and agreed to be identified. That union representative was subsequently dismissed because he had spoken to a reporter—a dismissal that he challenged in front of the Labour Relations Board.
My journalist colleague was summoned to appear before this tribunal, and the lawyers of the employer—the Société immobilière du Québec, or SIQ, in this case—wanted to compel her to file all her notes and recordings and reveal the identity of other sources. One of them was known, but they wanted to force her to reveal the identity of the other sources. She expressed her opposition, and the FPJQ supported her.
The Labour Relations Commissioner ultimately recognized the validity of the arguments made by the lawyers of the journalist, who was not forced to reveal her sources. Was it a victory? I don't really think so, because to my mind, the harm has already been done once you reach that stage. SIQ employees clearly understood what they would be risking now if they decided to talk to reporters. Their employer was able to dismiss a union representative who had said too much. They know perfectly well what will happen to them if they decide to talk, even if it is under the cover of anonymity, and their identity ends up being revealed.
In that case, the Labour Relations Commissioner protected the reporter's anonymous sources, but who is to say that a future commissioner or judge will see things the same way? The consequence of that is that an employee will cease to contribute to the dissemination of information which is in the public interest. It is clear that the sword of Damocles hangs over the head not only of journalists and sources, but of the public as well, which is in danger of being deprived of information that is important for our democratic life. Journalists have a moral responsibility to protect the identity of sources to whom they have promised anonymity. That value is also clearly laid out in our code de ethics.
Professional journalists honour that responsibility, but the lack of legal protection makes them and their sources subject to unnecessary pressure and risk. Bill C-426 provides an opportunity to remove that sword of Damocles over their head and allow everyone to work more serenely.
It is not always easy for journalists to convince their sources to talk. They may be afraid of journalists. I am not sure why, but it is possible that some people are afraid of journalists. They may also be afraid of reprisals from their colleagues or their employer, as I described a few moments ago. Journalists sometimes have to work in tense social situations—for example, where there are labour disputes or demonstrations occurring.
I remember covering a labour dispute in the 1980s at the Manoir Richelieu, a fancy hotel in the Charlevoix region, near Quebec City. Employees there were fighting to keep their jobs. There had been demonstrations and vandalism. A plot to explode a bomb was even uncovered. One evening when there was a demonstration, one of the demonstrators died at the hands of police who had just arrested him. So, you can imagine how tense it was in the village at the time. A Radio-Canada colleague filmed the demonstration as the labour dispute was ongoing. In the course of that demonstration, windows were broken. She used some of the pictures in her report, but not all of them. The police then seized her film reels with the intent of using them as evidence against the demonstrators, and there are many such examples.
The danger is that when demonstrators, employees or members of the public start to see reporters as a threat or, worse, as potentially collaborating with police or the justice system, they will become wary of journalists and stop talking to them or cooperating with them. Once again, I believe the public would ultimately run the risk of being penalized. Bill C-426 would mitigate that risk.
Journalists are not above the law. We are aware that there can be circumstances where a journalist's testimony is the only way of securing material evidence, and thus serving the public interest. It's important to be open to that theoretical possibility. We accept the idea that a court of law could arbitrate between the rights of the press and other rights. However, we do think it's important to put an end to the fishing expeditions carried out by police officers and lawyers who sometimes fail to carry out their investigative work thoroughly and properly. They take the easy way out, which is to put a journalist in the witness box. The use of journalistic materials and testimony should be an exception and a last resort.
For all these reasons, we support Bill C-426. There is nothing exceptional about it. Indeed, in the Western world, there is currently a trend towards protection of sources. Legislation has been passed in a number of countries, including the United States and in Europe, notably France and Belgium. It is a fairly significant trend, and we believe it is high time that Canada followed their example and joined the countries that are leading the way in that regard.
Thank you. I am obviously available to take any question you may have and participate in the debate.