British Columbia

Media fights to broadcast extradition hearing of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou

A lawyer representing some of the most powerful media organizations in North America argued Wednesday in favour of placing cameras in the courtroom for Meng Wanzhou's extradition hearing.

Consortium of organizations including CBC wants to put a camera in court for January hearing

Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou arrives at the B.C. Supreme Court in September. A consortium of media outlets is arguing to broadcast her extradition hearing. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A lawyer representing some of the most powerful media organizations in North America argued Wednesday in favour of placing cameras in B.C. Supreme Court when Meng Wanzhou's extradition hearing begins next year.

Daniel Coles represents a media consortium that includes the CBC, the New York Times, CNN and the Globe and Mail.

He said the extraordinary level of public interest generated by the arrest of the Huawei chief financial officer at Vancouver international airport almost a year ago is proof of the need to broadcast the proceedings.

Coles said politicians in both the U.S. and Canada have weighed in on the case, Canadian pork and canola farmers have felt the sting of chilly relations with China and two Canadians have been arrested and charged with spying — allegedly "paying a price" for Canada's decision to carry out the American arrest warrant.

The case affects many Canadians outside of Vancouver, Coles said — and "they can't [all] come to this courtroom."

Extradition proceedings set to begin in January

Meng faces extradition to the United States for allegedly misleading banks about Huawei's relationship with a hidden subsidiary accused of attempting to sell U.S. telecommunications equipment in Tehran.

American prosecutors claim Meng's alleged lies put the banks who cleared transactions for Huawei at risk of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.

Meng has denied the allegations.

Meng Wanzhou's court appearances have generated unprecedented public interest. A media consortium that includes the CBC would like to place cameras in the courtroom. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The first phase of the extradition proceedings is set to begin on Jan. 20 with a hearing related to the concept of double criminality — the requirement that the offence Meng is accused of be considered a crime in both Canada and the U.S..

Her lawyers have indicated in the past that they plan to argue in part that Canada didn't have sanctions against Iran like those of the U.S. on the date the Canadian Department of Justice gave a green light for the arrest.

'More imagined than real'

Both Meng's lawyers and lawyers for Canada's attorney general are opposed to allowing cameras in the courtroom.

Broadcasting of court proceedings in B.C. is rare, but it has happened — most notably in a 2011 ruling related to the legality of polygamy and a case this year in the B.C. Court of Appeal dealing with the Trans Mountain pipeline.

The Supreme Court of Canada first allowed cameras in its courtroom in 1981 to televise the judgment in a reference to patriate the Constitution. The court has been regularly broadcasting its proceedings since 1998.

The Supreme Court of Canada regularly broadcasts its proceedings but retains all rights to the material recorded. (Submitted/Supreme Court of Canada Collection)

Coles said that although concerns are often raised about problems that might arise as a result of allowing cameras into courtrooms "the media consortium is unaware of any proceeding in Canada where the court permitted the use of video cameras to broadcast its proceedings with adverse consequences."

The consortium is proposing an arrangement that would see CBC place two small cameras in the courtroom to record counsel, the judge and witnesses.

Broadcast would be delayed for two hours and the judge would have the ability to stop the recording at any time. Any witnesses could also opt out of having their testimony recorded. 

Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes, who is presiding over the case, raised the fear that while accredited members of the media might stick to whatever guidelines the court imposes, nothing would stop others from breaking those rules.

But Coles dismissed those concerns.

"It's the experience of courts in this country that that risk is more imagined than real," he said.

'A quite radical and extreme application'

The court has a process to apply for the presence of cameras in the courtroom, but it doesn't have a legal framework set up for judges to apply in considering applications.

That leaves Holmes to consider a series of decisions that trace the history of a battle to get cameras inside court walls that has paralleled the explosion of round-the-clock news coverage and the pervasive influence of social media.

Coles suggested that the best test for the judge to consider is the same one used to deal with applications for publication bans: courts generally rule in favour of openness unless there's a risk to the administration of justice or if the benefits of a ban might outweigh any harm to concepts like freedom of expression or the right to a fair and public trial.

But Meng's lawyers argued that the media consortium was asking for something very different from the type of broadcast that goes on in the Supreme Court of Canada through the Cable Public Affairs Channel.

"This is a quite radical and extreme application," said David Martin.

Martin said the CBC and others were arguing for unrestricted use of any material recorded in court, whereas the Supreme Court retains control over the recording process and resulting recordings.

The defence lawyer said the cameras would disrupt the calm and dignified atmosphere of the courtroom.

Martin said that broadcasting the extradition hearing would have "profound implications for the conduct of the courts in our country."

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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