Leading Quebec investigative journalist ordered to reveal who leaked information about political corruption

One of Quebec's most prominent investigative journalists has been ordered by the Superior Court to reveal who leaked confidential information to her.

Quebec Superior Court ruling will force Radio-Canada's Marie-Maude Denis to testify in criminal trial

Radio-Canada investigative reporter Marie-Maude Denis was ordered to reveal who leaked information to her about collusion in the awarding of public contracts. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

One of the province's most prominent investigative journalists has been ordered by Quebec Superior Court to reveal who leaked confidential information to her.

Radio-Canada's Marie-Maude Denis was told, in a ruling handed down Thursday, that she must identify the sources she used for a story that alleged collusion in the awarding of public contracts.

The broadcaster has announced it will appeal the decision. Michel Cormier, Radio-Canada's head of news and current affairs, said it threatens the public's right to be informed.

"The protection of confidential sources is fundamental to investigative journalism," Cormier said in a statement.

Denis said journalists have a duty to dig through confidential information and inform the public when it is in their interest.

Without the promise of confidentiality, she said, it would be impossible for journalists to do their jobs. "If we start revealing our sources, no one will trust us," she told CBC News. 

Connected to trial 

The information provided to Denis led to the broadcast of two documentaries, aired on the investigative program Enquête in 2012 and 2015. They exposed ties between provincial Liberal Party fundraising and the awarding of public contracts.

Thursday's ruling annuls a previous decision by Quebec court Judge André Perreault, who had thrown out a request to have Denis, and reporter Louis Lacroix of Cogeco, testify in the trial of an ex-Liberal fundraiser.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Marc-Yvan Côté was arrested alongside former Liberal deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau in 2016. They face a string of corruption-related charges. 

Côté's defence team has argued that media reports by Denis and Lacroix robbed their client of a fair and impartial trial. They are seeking a stay in the proceedings. 

Defence lawyer Jacques Larochelle is trying to prove the leaks came from senior officials in Quebec's anti-corruption unit, known by its French acronym UPAC. 

If true, Larochelle had argued, it would prove there was a concerted effort within the Liberal government to incriminate his client.

He has applied separately to have the case thrown out due to unreasonable delays, citing the Supreme Court's Jordan ruling.

Former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister Marc-Yvan Côté (right) is facing several charges including conspiracy, corruption, breach of trust and bribery. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

New federal law 

The ruling by Justice Jean-François Émond comes despite a federal law, passed last year, that says reporters cannot be forced to reveal their sources.

Émond argued that if the public interest stemming from the outcome of a criminal trial outweighs the public interest of protecting journalistic sources, a reporter can be forced to testify.

He also appeared to agree with the argument presented by Côté's defence team. "It would be an understatement to say that the presumption of innocence took a beating," Émond wrote in his decision.

Unlike Denis, Lacroix was not ordered to testify. Because his sources contacted him without revealing their identity, it would be impossible for him to divulge them to the court, Émond said.

His decision also says that it will be up to the Quebec court to decide under which circumstances Denis will testify; perhaps behind closed doors.

Reaction from politicians

Several politicians expressed alarm Thursday at the prospect of a journalist being forced to reveal the sources behind a major political corruption scandal. 

Conservative Sen. Claude Carignan, who drafted the original version of the federal law on source protection, said the ruling puts journalists in a vulnerable situation.

He said this was the first time the law has been challenged in a court of law, and is "very disappointed" by the outcome.

"I would have liked it to be a result that is favourable to the protection of sources," Carignan said.

At Quebec's National Assembly, Coalition Avenir Québec MNA Nathalie Roy, who worked as a journalist for 20 years before entering politics, called the decision "troubling."

"I'm happy to hear that Radio-Canada will appeal the decision," Roy said. "Without sources, we no longer have journalism and counterweight to the state."

The lower court hearing Côté's trial was to rule Monday on the stay-of-proceedings request. The Superior Court's ruling, and Radio-Canada's appeal, could delay the proceedings.

Meanwhile, journalists and organizations expressed concern with the court decision, including the international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders.

Stéphane Giroux, president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec (FPJP), said the organization is extremely disappointed by the judgment, which he said could create a precedent where sources are afraid to speak to journalists if they're not guaranteed confidentiality.

"Without sources, there can be no investigative journalism — and without investigative journalism, we simply cannot have a healthy democracy," Giroux said.

Though he said he's happy that Radio-Canada will appeal the decision, Giroux said the decision presents a major obstacle to freedom of the press as it currently stands.

He said that although the FPJP understands there are limitations to the protection of journalistic sources, authorities could have used other means to find out who these sources are.

"We find it suspicious that they would simply turn and say no, we want the journalists to tell us who our sources are," Giroux said.

With files from Radio-Canada