As It Happens

Journalist applauds 'historic' Supreme Court ruling that shields her confidential source

Radio-Canada journalist Marie-Maude Denis wins a landmark ruling at Canada's Supreme Court, which sets strict new rules on when the police can force a journalist to give up a confidential source.

Revealing a source no longer 'on the journalist's shoulder,' says Marie-Maude Denis

Marie-Maude Denis makes her way through the lobby of the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa in May. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
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Marie-Maude Denis is hailing a Supreme Court of Canada ruling as a "historic" victory for freedom of the press. 

On Friday morning, the country's top court tossed out an order that would have forced the Radio-Canada journalist to reveal her confidential sources.

Denis is the host of Radio-Canada's flagship investigative program Enquête and had been investigating allegations against Marc-Yvan Côté, a former provincial Liberal minister in Quebec charged with fraud and bribery.

The Supreme Court set aside a disclosure order issued by the Superior Court of Quebec that would have forced her to give up her source. But it refused to rule on the merits of that order, instead saying new evidence in the case required that the process be restarted in a lower court.

The case is the first major test of a new federal law that bolsters the ability of journalists to protect confidential sources. 

Denis spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off about the ruling. Here is part of their conversation.  

What was the reaction at Enquête, your place of work, when you got the news today?

Our lawyers came down, and we were all in the conference room, and we just cheered and applauded. It was a very great, great, great moment.

It represents that the highest court in the country says that the protection of the sources is important. And it has to be in the highest public interest to force a journalist to reveal their sources.

And the main thing is that it says that ... the new law that was adopted by Parliament two years ago, it's the first interpretation, and it goes in the direction of giving an increased protection. And that's very important. 

And the language used by it, by the judges, is very strong to describe the paramount importance of investigative journalism, and the protection of the sources.

Denis argues that sources need to be able to trust journalists, and police surveillance undermines that confidence. (CBC)

You're talking about the Journalistic Sources Protection Act that was passed two years ago, and not yet tested until [this] 8-1 ruling from the Supreme Court. What did they say about why this is important?

It's clearly wanted by our government to go in the direction of giving additional protection [to confidential sources]. And that was [what] was so bad about the decision of the Superior Court of Quebec, because the judge of the Superior Court said no, the new law doesn't change anything.

And the Supreme Court says it changes everything because the burden of proving you don't have to reveal a source is not anymore on the journalist's shoulder. It's on the party that wants to force the journalist to testify on their sources.

And and it's a big burden — because it has to be in the case of complete necessity, and in the highest public interest. And that said that the judges of the Supreme Court say that protecting the sources [is] also of a great public interest for our country.

So that's what's new and so important — and historic, I would say — about this decision.

So basically the onus is on the law — the police or the courts — to prove that they have to have material from a journalist, and not the journalist who has to defend the reason why they don't turn over the information about their sources. Is that what's changed?

Exactly. And in this case, we have Marc-Yvan Côté, who is accused of corruption, fraud. And he wants a stay of the proceedings. And he alleges that there was some kind of a plot to move from the justice system to leak confidential documents to me in order to deprive him of a fair trial. 

And in this case, my story was presented even four years before he was even arrested. So the judge, [Rosalie] Abella, she goes even further. In her view, there's no way that I should have to testify to reveal my sources in such a case.

Marc-Yvan Côté, former Quebec transport minister is seen in a frame grab from the video feed in 2014 in Montreal, at the Charbonneau inquiry into corruption in the Quebec construction industry. (Canadian Press/Charbonneau Commission)

But it's not over yet, is it? I mean, the court is now sending you back to trial to consider what the prosecution says is new evidence. So what does that tell you about how police and prosecutors are regarding this ruling?

The Public Ministry says they have new evidence in an investigation about leaks in the media of various police documents. And they said very little, but they said that if we wait to see what's the outcome of this investigation, there will be little or no need to have me testify.

Nobody knows what's the new evidence for now.

But I'm not very worried because there's going be a steep hill with that decision of the Supreme Court today to prove that it's in the higher public interest to have me testify about my sources than not.

With files from The Canadian Press. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.