Quebec judge to decide whether surveillance footage of Quebec City mosque shooting should be made public

A lawyer representing a media consortium says the public has the right to documents entered into a court of law, including video surveillance from cameras inside the Sainte-Foy mosque.

Media consortium argues that only portions of the video would be published

Surveillance footage from inside the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre could be presented as evidence by the Crown during the sentencing hearings for Alexandre Bissonnette, found guilty of six first-degree murder charges for the Jan. 29, 2017 attack. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

A Quebec Superior Court judge will have to determine not only how many years Alexandre Bissonnette will spend behind bars for killing six people when he opened fire inside a mosque, but also if surveillance footage from inside the building the night of the deadly shooting should be made public.

Justice François Huot is deliberating after hearing on Tuesday why a media consortium, which includes CBC News, is asking to lift any future publication ban on images it has determined could be of public interest.

The lawyer representing the seven media outlets, Jean-François Côté, said his clients don't intend to broadcast the entire video, even if they get their hands on it.

Côté said the public's right to information is a fundamental aspect of Canadian law.

"The principle of media broadcasting is the cornerstone of public debate," Côté argued in a Quebec City courtroom on Tuesday.

Survivors, victims' families upset

Several survivors of the attack on the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre were in the courtroom, as were family members of the six men Bissonnette was found guilty of killing.

As Côté made his arguments to the judge, they whispered to each other. 

The president and co-founder of the mosque, Boufeldja Benabdallah, said these families are troubled by the thought the images could make it into the public realm.
Alexandre Bissonnette is escorted to a van after appearing in court for the deadly shooting at a mosque, Monday, January 30, 2017 in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

He said this would lead to the breakdown of the Muslim community's relationship with media.

"We will be much more fearful that sensationalism will be more important than anything else," he told reporters outside the courtroom.

Debate is needed, says judge

Côté began his arguments by tackling the unease the request seems to have struck in the community, an element Benabdallah raised in his testimony on Friday.

The motives behind the consortium's request are not based on sensationalism or voyeurism, Côté said, but merely on the fact that a courtroom, and the evidence presented within it, are public.

Justice Huot took the opportunity to underline the importance of the request, which he said is in line with previous Canadian court cases.

"Media have a role of watchdogs for society," Huot said, stressing he did not see any "oblique motivation" in the request.

Given Huot could be sending Bissonnette to the longest prison sentence in Canadian history, 150 years without the chance for parole, Côté argued the public needs all the information available to form an opinion.
Jean-François Côté is representing a consortium of seven media corporation, including CBC News. (Julia Page/CBC )

"There will be an unprecedented public debate," Côté said.

Bissonnette could be sentenced to serve six consecutive life sentences with no eligibility for parole, based on changes to the Criminal Code introduced by the Conservative government, in 2011.

Crown would allow descriptions

The Crown, which started presenting its arguments on Friday, is opposing the release of all images, including those sought after by the consortium.

An expert witness who watched the video over the weekend told the court on Tuesday she believed it would leave people "feeling helpless."

After giving her initial statement on Friday, Cécile Rousseau, a psychiatrist and clinical researcher with Montreal's McGill University, said bearing witness to the video "would be cruel and inhumane" for the victims' families, calling it a form of torture.

As an alternative, prosecutor Thomas Jacques is offering to have journalists in the courtroom watch the footage. In this way, they can report on what they saw, without any publication ban on descriptions of the videos.

"This would reconcile the public's right to be informed and the protection of the victims and Quebec society as a whole," he said in his closing arguments.

This would be insufficient, replied Côté, because words don't have impact the same impact as images.

"A picture speaks for itself. It clearly is of interest in determining the sentence," he said.

All parties will be back in court on Wednesday morning to hear Justice Huot's decision.

If he rules the images can be made public, the Crown may still choose not to present the footage as evidence to prevent it from ever being seen by the public.

Sentencing arguments for Bissonnette, expected to last three weeks, are set to begin Wednesday afternoon.