Canada·CBC Forum

When should journalists turn over information to police?

A judge has ordered a reporter to give the RCMP his communications with a man police have alleged is an ISIS fighter and charged with terrorism-related offences. When should journalists turn over information to the police?

Judge rules reporter must turn over to RCMP background material on man facing terror-related charges

Calgary man Farah Mohamed Shirdon, shown in an RCMP photo, was interviewed by a Vice Media reporter. The news outlet has been ordered to turn over the communications with Shirdon to police. (RCMP/Canadian Press)

A judge has ordered a reporter to give the RCMP his communications with a man police have alleged is an ISIS fighter and charged with terrorism-related offences.

Vice Media national security reporter Ben Makuch was ordered by an Ontario Superior Court justice on Tuesday to surrender his instant messenger chat logs with Farah Shirdon, whom he had interviewed.

RCMP say Makuch's communications with Shirdon are evidence. Justice Ian MacDonnell said the logs relate to serious allegations, and that there is "strong public interest" in an "effective investigation and prosecution."

But Vice says seizure of any journalist's records violates freedom of the press. Makuch said the order will affect the willingness of confidential sources to speak with media, knowing records of their conversations can be seized and used against them.
"If we're going to be made an investigative arm of the police, it's going to change how we newsgather," Makuch told CBC News. "It's also going to change how sources interact with us."

When should journalists turn over information to the police?

Readers let us know in the latest CBC Forum — a live, hosted discussion about topics of national interest.

(Please note that user names are not necessarily the names of commenters. Some comments have been altered to correct spelling and to conform to CBC style. Click on the user name to see the comment in the blog format.)

"Journalists are not separate countries with separate laws. If the information they have relates to a crime or public safety they need to disclose it. Otherwise they could be regarded as complicit and with good reason." — refraction 

"I believe the procedure in place is a good place to start. If a judge has ordered it then I am inclined to agree with the judge. I am not saying that judges are infallible, but they are impartial (as a rule) and have the public interest at heart (as a rule)." — Debbie Brendan

"I think that the same standard which determines when a physician, lawyer or clergyman is lawfully obligated to share privileged client information with law enforcement ought to also apply to journalists regarding their informants. Unless there is an imminent threat to a specific person or persons, then the relationship between a journalist and his informant ought to be equally sacrosanct as the other relationships mentioned above." — Fresh Outlook

"I think the only cases where a journalist should be required to hand over information to the authorities is if a child is being hurt or may be hurt or if there is an immediate threat to the public (such as "I plan to bomb Toronto's airport next week", not this "Canada and America will pay" general stuff). Of course, that leaves it up to the journalist to decide whether or not the information is necessary to report, but we already trust journalists to have some ethical and legal understanding of their jobs, and it wouldn't just be them. I'm sure they'd be consulting with their editor and maybe lawyers as well." —- Ang

"If journalists are made to provide informant information, no one would provide information and many matters that the media investigate and report on will no longer be available.… The police and government should hire their own people to get information. If the media can get it, so can they, if they bother to try.  Otherwise, they will just use the media to do their work." — Never

"Never. Freedom of the press is one of the few 'freedoms' still intact. Let's keep it that way. The choice should be that of the journalist. We must assume he/she knows when it is a must. Forcing the hand is unconstitutional." — Artsy Sue

You can read the complete discussion below.

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With files from Reuters and The Canadian Press