Thank you very much, Mr. Chair and committee members and fellow invitees. I'd like to thank you for the opportunity today to speak before you. My name is Jennifer Strachan, as already mentioned. I'm an RCMP superintendent in charge of operational policy and programs here at national headquarters for the RCMP.
My purpose today is to provide you with information on the RCMP perspective relative to the proposed Bill C-426 related to the protection of journalistic sources.
The RCMP respects the work of professional journalists and understands the importance of protecting sources in certain circumstances. We believe the common law principles currently afforded a journalist in protection of their sources is critical to their profession.
Journalistic standards and practices are not legally binding in the way standards are for doctors and lawyers; however, at least one nationally recognized journalistic organization encourages its practitioners to default always to transparency in their reporting and only resort to withholding sources' names in extraordinary circumstances. RCMP members need to challenge journalistic protection of sources on very rare occasions, and since journalists should resort to confidentiality practices as sparingly as possible, it would appear that problems may not arise very often. With that in mind, it should not be difficult to find ways to avoid working at cross-purposes.
There are several amendments we would like to see that would make the bill clearer and more manageable. I understand the originator of the bill has already proposed amendments to Bill C-426C-426, and we see this as a positive step in finding an acceptable solution to what we consider critical issues.
Strict and clear definitions of terms such as “journalist” and “source” are very important, as these terms could otherwise be interpreted so widely as to hinder normal police investigations. Ambiguity exists in this regard; for example, bloggers encouraging hate crime or underground websites propagating beliefs unacceptable in Canadian society could realistically fall under the current definition.
The protection proposed by this legislation would also extend to anyone who assists a journalist. This could offer protection to people who, for various reasons, should not be given such a privilege.
The RCMP is not in favour of conferring privileges upon journalists that are similar to solicitor-client privileges for lawyers. No other profession, not doctors or priests, has such legislative protection, even though those two groups have complex admission and qualification criteria for anyone seeking accreditation. So far, this kind of professional standard does not exist for journalists, and the bill implicitly seeks to confer a privilege on them that is not recognized by law.
In addition, based on these facts, we must be mindful that legislation of this nature, for journalistic protection, could open the door to other professional groups who might seek similar recognition.
Under the proposed bill, the police would be required to investigate all other sources of potential information prior to considering a search warrant on a journalist's possessions. This broad requirement could compromise public safety and cause undue delay while police attempt to meet the criteria of the bill.
Any impediment to obtaining information about the identity of a perpetrator, such as a journalistic claim to confidentiality, could result in the compromise or destruction of evidence, for example concealment of the whereabouts of potential victims, or further harm to victims.
Victims' rights advocates should be made aware of this bill and the impact upon those they seek to represent. They should also be afforded an opportunity to voice their opinions on potential ramifications.
A further impediment would be the time police would have to go about meeting the proposed bill's burden of proof to obtain this type of information, as already mentioned, in time-sensitive cases. This is one example in which police operations could be affected.
Currently, legislation allows for a balancing of interests between the public, police, and journalists under the Criminal Code of Canada and common law. Justices have the ability to order disclosure where a party can prove that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the public interest in non-disclosure. For these reasons, I would suggest that the clauses pertaining to search warrants be removed or significantly revisited within the bill.
Legislation already exists that addresses seizure and securing of evidence. This includes search warrants, information to obtain and the ability to seal search warrants, as well as reports to justices on evidence seized on form 5.2. Already these processes are very complex and have their own set of rules, and in the past they have been able to manage expectations of the criminal justice system.
The process of filing a return, which is a form 5.2, manages the activities of law enforcement in relation to the execution of search warrants and provides an opportunity for the respondent to contest the detention of items seized. Respondents can also file an application to quash a search warrant.
In addition, as it relates to protection of the interests of a potential source, police agencies do not disclose evidence to the public while investigations are ongoing unless circumstances, such as imminent risk of death or grievous bodily harm, make disclosure necessary. If the police were to obtain information from journalists and were worried that the disclosure of that information would cause harm to their source, it would be handled with the same level of confidentiality as all other evidence.
In a democratic society, the work of the police is work on behalf of the people. Our goal of community safety and security is shared by all law-abiding citizens. Additionally, a journalist strives to serve communities by providing information, warnings, news, and entertainment that improves our quality of life as a society. In fact, we often work together in that regard.
These two sets of objectives are not incompatible. Legislation to clarify those potential instances where conflict could arise and to provide direction for both parties gives us an opportunity to understand how the relationship between the police and journalists can function without undue conflict.
Thank you very much.