Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise tonight to speak to private member's Bill C-426, An Act to amend the Canada Evidence Act (protection of journalistic sources and search warrants).
I find myself in the position of following a number of other speakers on this bill, but I do believe it is important to reiterate some of the previous comments and points made and to add my own views to the debate.
I also want to be clear at the outset that I rise in support of Bill C-426 and its intent to protect journalistic freedom in Canada.
In this House when speaking to a number of bills previously, I have made the statement that I feel democracy, yes even our democracy, is a fragile thing that needs not only to be nurtured, but sometimes to be pushed a bit to match the expectations of Canadians.
I know Canadians from the Hamilton area in particular will be quick to say that they feel the role journalists play at times when leaks on government practices or other situations of mismanagement or misconduct are brought to light is essential to their knowing the issues and how they can expect the government to respond.
I would also suggest that the reason this issue would be of particular interest to the residents of Hamilton is the fact that they observed a reporter for the Hamilton Spectator, Mr. Ken Peters, face a contempt of court charge on this very issue.
Mr. Peters was called before Justice Crane on a case involving alleged abuse at a seniors residence in Hamilton. Mr. Peters had exposed this case based on, to a large part, evidence he had received from a confidential source.
We all know the type of interest that would happen in a community around such allegations. This particular residence is a very high profile one. Of course that creates quite a situation if there is any chance of the name of that private source coming out.
One has to ask, would the individual have offered the information had he or she known that his or her name would be part of a court record?
The judge in this case had not even ruled that knowing the name of the source was essential to the case before he threatened to penalize Mr. Peters and cause him to pay court costs to the sum of around $31,000 if he did not reveal that confidential source.
I have known Mr. Ken Peters for close to, if not more than, 20 years. One thing people in my community would agree on is that Mr. Peters conducted himself professionally and exhibited professionalism in his work at all times.
When Mr. Peters was ordered by Judge Crane to reveal his source, Mr. Peters declined, saying, “With all due respect, your honour, I cannot do that”.
I would ask the members present to think about this for a moment. We function in this place with the protection of the House of Commons surrounding us. How would we feel in the day to day cut and thrust of what happens in Parliament if that protection were removed and we faced endless prosecutions or court challenges as we brought forth the issues of the day?
I would like to quote Peter Desbarats who wrote in the Globe and Mail in 2004 on this particular point:
Judge Crane's ruling was extraordinary for its lack of knowledge and perspective on media practices and its narrowly legalistic approach. It represented a step backward in what has recently been some progress in Canadian courts toward treating secrecy of source with the respect it deserves.
Secret sources are vital. Without the ability to protect the identity of sources, journalists would be severely handicapped in performing one of their essential functions.
This becomes clearer if one considers all journalism as falling into two categories. The first is “official,” and most of the information carried by the media--from major political news to weather reports--belongs to this group. Almost all of this service information comes from official sources. And when it comes to political information, almost all is biased or incomplete.
The second category is “unofficial” journalism. Although it is much smaller by volume than official information, it is far more significant. It usually contains key facts that governments or corporations try to conceal for self-serving reasons. This information, by definition, can only come from unofficial or secret sources.
The media rightly place a high value on this kind of exclusive information, and they give it prominence. Journalists who earn a reputation for being adept in uncovering this type of information are the respected leaders in our field; they expose corruption in government and business and alter the course of affairs for the better.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the measure of an effective democracy is the amount of unofficial information carried by its media. And the growing trend toward enacting “whistleblower” legislation to protect the sources who provide this information is an indication of its importance.
Later on he said:
Why would journalists place themselves in such jeopardy? According to Judge Crane, they are pawns of media owners intent on selling “the news”. These owners “employ journalists to search out newsworthy information using as one means, the undertaking of confidentiality to sources.”
After hearing from a few journalists and media experts, Judge Crane concluded that “any journalist that has revealed a source will never again be employed in a newsroom.” He blames the “oppressive nature of the culture” for the predicament of Mr. Peters.
This is truly a bizarre distortion of what occurs in most newsrooms.
To begin with, the obvious need to use secret sources is apparent to all journalists, not something that employers force them to do. It's an essential element in obtaining the kind of unofficial information that enables journalists to produce their most meaningful work.
Far from insisting on the use of secret sources, publishers, editors and news directors try to ensure that their reporters don't lightly give undertakings of confidentiality. In fact, they won't allow a reporter to do this without the express consent of a senior editor to whom the reporter has confided the identity of his or her source. News organizations do this for their own protection, as the Spectator did in Mr. Peters' case.
This common practice engages the news organization intimately in all risks involved in promising confidentiality to a source. Far from being an example of an “oppressive culture” in the newsroom, it illustrates, in our best media, a co-operative effort to produce truly significant information.
Virtually all journalists are aware of the dangers involved in promising confidentiality; they use this method only as a last resort.
He went at some length beyond that.
In democracies around the world, the right to protect one's confidential sources is seen as critical to the very core beliefs of the democracies. Canada has a long-standing reputation around the world as a defender of citizens' rights as well as human rights, but in the case of the journalist's rights, it is just words and is not codified in law.
I commend my Bloc colleague who brought this bill before the House to ensure that Canada lives up to those words.
It is ironic that as we debate this bill, the protective shadow of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms fails to cover such a basic protection as that needed by journalists. I would add that the irony of the fact that the current federal government, which espouses accountability and honesty and thus has nothing to fear from such a bill, did not bring forth proper legislation during the early months of its tenure.
Earlier in this debate, the member for Hamilton Centre referred to a Hamilton Spectator editorial on Mr. Peters' case and the response from the then Liberal minister. The editorial stated:
The minister admitted he hadn't had time to consider the matter much further since then, being distracted by the troubles inherent in a minority government and all. But he did say that he believed in the importance and necessary role a free press played in supporting democracy and that he felt a “shield law or something” like it should be examined.
The editorial ended with:
We'll take you at your word on that Mr. Minister and look forward to any proposals you may bring forward.
We are not aware of any proposals from that minister or the current one.
I would say that in the life of any politician, we may well disagree with the direction in which a journalist may choose to exercise his or her freedom of choice to report, but it is our democratic responsibility to legislate to protect that very freedom.
I have asked how long would the sponsorship scandal have festered if it had been ignored by the media out of fear. Today we see nightly reports on the Mulroney-Schreiber case. What would have happened if the media had not been working on those cases?
In closing, I would say it is essential for all parties to send a clear message to journalists that they need no longer live in fear as they respond to their obligation to report to our nation on the controversial issues brought forward by confidential sources.