A CBC News reporter in Whitehorse is going to court next week to protect her sources from a Yukon newspaper, which wants the public broadcaster to reveal those sources.
The Yukon News is asking the territorial Supreme Court to make the CBC reveal the identities of sources who spoke to reporter Nancy Thomson as part of an investigative series that aired in 2004.
Lawyers for the newspaper and the CBC will appear in a Whitehorse courtroom on Monday. The court could order Thomson to name her sources, and she could be found in contempt of court if she refuses.
"I'm completely stunned that one news organization would sue another news organization to reveal their sources," said Ivor Shapiro, a journalism professor at Ryerson University.
Shapiro, who teaches media law at the Toronto university, said he has never heard of a case like this before.
Prescription drug abuse probed
Thomson's 2004 report looked into drug abuse and other social problems in Watson Lake, a town of about 1,500 in southern Yukon.
Her investigation included interviews with 11 people who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the increased use of Tylenol 3 and other prescription drugs in town.
Thomson reported at the time that Watson Lake's sole doctor, Dr. Said Secerbegovic, was also the town's only pharmacist.
The CBC investigative series sparked a public discussion that went all the way to the territorial legislature.
The Yukon News wrote an editorial that praised Thomson's series and made its own claims about Secerbegovic and Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie, who is also the MLA for Watson Lake.
The newspaper was later sued by Secerbegovic for defamation.
Important principle, lawyer argues
As part of its defence, the Yukon News wants the CBC to reveal the identities of Thomson's original sources.
Edmonton-based media lawyer Fred Kozak, who is representing Thomson and the broadcaster, said he is not aware of any case like it in Canada or elsewhere.
"I am confident that all of the players involved — so both the plaintiff [and] the defendant, and their counsel and the court — recognize that this is an important principle, not only for Nancy Thomson but for journalists and reporters everywhere," Kozak said.
"It's the lifeblood of what they do. They gather information and they have to be able to offer some protection to people who are in vulnerable circumstances."
In a release, the group Canadian Journalists for Free Expression said it can be very difficult for journalists to produce investigative reports "if people fear their identities will be exposed if they blow the whistle on what they believe are wrongdoings."
"Although CBC News is not directly involved in this defamation case and its journalism has not been questioned, we note that protection of confidential sources is fundamental to freedom of the press and an important component of high-quality, independent journalism," said Jennifer McGuire, general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News.
"We fully support our journalist Nancy Thomson, who has declined to provide her sources to lawyers for the Yukon News in this matter."