Police try to obtain CBC reporter's emails with Justice Department
Police employee filed freedom-of-information request for emails about officer Trent Milan
Winnipeg police attempted to obtain email correspondence between a CBC News reporter and a Manitoba Justice official, prompting more concerns about police efforts to gather information about journalists' sources in Canada.
CBC News has learned a Winnipeg Police Service employee filed a freedom-of-information request last month seeking "any email correspondence" between a justice employee and "the CBC reporter Caroline Barghout" regarding "names removed" from Sept. 12-16.
The emails are in reference to Winnipeg police Const. Trent Milan, who was arrested and accused of drug trafficking on Sept. 16, and another suspect connected to his case. Milan died Oct. 3 after he drove his vehicle head-on into a gravel truck.
Freedom of information is a tool used by media, politicians, businesses and others to find information about government affairs. Experts say it is rare to see police make use of the legislation — especially when it comes to trying to discover a journalist's activities.
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Before Milan's arrest was made public, Barghout had made some inquiries about the officer.
The other individual of interest to the police was Bradley Laing, who pleaded guilty on Nov. 15 to possessing stolen jewellery obtained from Milan. Laing told court he pawned the jewellery and split the proceeds with the late police officer.
On the day Milan's charges were made public, Barghout attended a police press conference and asked questions about Milan. She subsequently asked police for information about Laing, before he was publicly connected to Milan. One month later, police made the freedom-of-information request for Barghout's emails about Laing and Milan.
The Winnipeg Police Service said it could neither confirm nor deny that one of its employees made the freedom-of-information request.
Reporter not being investigated
Police Chief Danny Smyth said Barghout is not the subject of any Winnipeg police investigation.
"Ms. Barghout is a seasoned reporter and journalist who does her job well," Smyth said in an email statement days before his swearing-in ceremony.
"As the incoming chief of the Winnipeg Police Service, I am concerned about Winnipeg Police Service employees sharing private and sensitive information inappropriately with persons or agencies that are not entitled to the information. The police service has a duty to ensure that private and sensitive information is protected and secure."
Although Barghout's name appeared on a public summary of FIPPA requests made to the Justice Department, it should have been removed for privacy reasons, according to the province. The Justice Department's freedom of information co-ordinator apologized for the oversight.
However, had the oversight not occurred, the public would not have known that someone was asking to see emails involving a journalist. Manitoba Justice's records manager said the police request will not be granted because Manitoba's freedom-of-information act doesn't apply to the justice official in question.
"Even if it is legally allowed, it is worrisome to see police using freedom of information laws as an investigative tool to monitor media interactions with government officials," said Jennifer McGuire, general manager and editor in chief of CBC News. "Protecting sources is a must in good journalism. And if this sort of intervention were to become commonplace, it could prevent vital information in the public interest from ever coming to light."
Communications and legal experts contacted by CBC News cannot recall a previous instance of a police service making a freedom-of-information request for correspondence involving a reporter.
Carleton University journalism Prof. Christopher Waddell, a former CBC parliamentary bureau chief and senior TV producer, said it appears as if the Winnipeg Police Service is attempting to silence whistleblowers.
"That's not an appropriate thing for the police to do," Waddell said in a telephone interview from Ottawa, adding a story involving an officer accused of criminal behaviour is definitely a matter of public interest.
"It is yet another example of the degree in which police seem to be using their powers to try to find out the sources for stories the journalist might have and potentially, even intimidate the journalist, if they can do it."
'They're getting creative'
Waddell said there are both legal and ethical issues in play.
"Even if they may be legal in what they're doing, I think there's an ethical issue involved in the way in which the police are spending their time," Waddell said.
"They're getting creative," said Nick Taylor-Vaisey, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, speaking over the phone from Ottawa. "I've never heard of a request of that sort being made."
Taylor-Vaisey said while the CAJ advocates for freedom of information, the organization would oppose any effort "to get in the middle of a reporter and their source."
A lot of things are legal that are not right- Nick Taylor-Vaisey, Canadian Association of Journalists
Fabien Gélinas, a law professor at McGill University in Montreal, where police have actively conducted surveillance on reporters, said he too has never heard of a case where police attempted to use freedom-of-information legislation to obtain correspondence between journalists and their sources.
"It doesn't seem to me it was part of the purpose and objective of the act to provide police with that information," he said in a telephone interview from Montreal.
The police surveillance of journalists in Quebec, which was approved by a justice, poses similar issues, said Taylor-Vaisey.
"A lot of things are legal that are not right," he said.
In Winnipeg, Smyth said he is not aware of any investigations of journalists, adding he would not endorse such a practice.
"Journalists play an important role in our society," he said in his statement. "Freedom of press is an essential component of their ability to perform. The only time I would endorse the investigation of a journalist is if they were suspected of being involved in criminal activity."