The Current

Vice reporter says RCMP's demands for his notes puts journalism at risk

As the RCMP's fight to compel a journalist to hand over his notes reaches the Supreme Court of Canada, opinion is divided over whether sources should be protected, and concerns of national security.

Former CSIS analyst argues that journalists have same responsibility as any Canadian when it comes to terror

Vice journalist Ben Makuch, left, interviewed alleged ISIS fighter Farah Mohamed Shirdon, right. He has refused RCMP requests to hand over his notes, and now the case has reached the Supreme Court of Canada. (Ben Makuch/Twitter, Canadian Press)

Read Story Transcript

A reporter says the RCMP's efforts to compel him to hand over notes from his interviews with an ISIS fighter could have serious ramifications for the practice of journalism.

The Supreme Court of Canada will hear arguments from the RCMP Wednesday, in a case that has raised concerns about journalists' ability to protect their sources.

"When you ask a journalist to become an investigative body of an intelligence agency, or a law enforcement agency, you are asking them to essentially corrupt what they do," Vice journalist Ben Makuch told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Makuch began speaking with ISIS fighters in 2013, including Canadian Farah Mohamed Shirdon. The interviews formed the basis for a series of articles on Vice. Despite the RCMP already knowing the identity of Shirdon — who is reported to have been killed three years ago — a request was made for Makuch's records. He refused, and told Tremonti he sees it as "a fishing expedition," to prove charges and set a precedent.

I communicate with an individual like this ... to be able to inform the public about what an individual like him is doing.- Ben  Makuch

"I'm not the only journalist in Canada, or in the world, who communicates with people who do illegal things," Makuch said.

"I communicate with an individual like this ... to be able to inform the public about what an individual like him is doing."

Makuch argued that by requesting these records, the RCMP is co-opting journalists who work in the investigative space, and "corrupting a very powerful, very important institution, which is the press."

Phil Gurski, a former strategic analyst at CSIS, said the case goes beyond beyond source protection. (Christian Patry/CBC)

Protecting sources vs. protecting Canadians?

The CBC and a number of press freedom and civil liberties groups have been allowed to make brief presentations at the hearing in Ottawa. Media organizations argue that potential sources for contentious stories won't talk to the press if they don't feel protected.

"I think in this case, it goes beyond beyond source protection," argued Phil Gurski, a former strategic analyst with CSIS. "It relates more to helping the RCMP in an ongoing investigation."

When it comes to the ongoing threat of terrorism, he said, journalists are like any other Canadian.

"Anybody, journalists included, who have access to information that relates to this threat ... have an obligation to provide that to the agencies that are tasked with our protection," he said.

Journalist-source relationship is vital, says reporter

Kim Bolan, a reporter with the Vancouver Sun, said that journalists already give the information they have to the police — when they publish it.

"The best information that journalists get from sources, we use in our stories, we publish it, we broadcast it," she said.

"In fact, we give it to the police in that public forum. We also give it to the rest of Canadians, and people outside of Canada."

Makuch is seen outside the Ontario Court of Appeal on on Feb. 6, 2017. (Colin Perkel/CP)

It's vital that journalists are able to protect and develop the sources needed to do that, she said.

"We're doing critical work, and we need to maintain these important tools to do that work, and we cannot become an arm of law enforcement."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Julie Crysler and Alison Masemann.