Journalists call on feds to bring in legislation to protect press, sources

La Presse journalist Patrick Lagace (left), journalist Mohamed Fahmy, and Executive Director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression Tom Henheffer (right) listen to VICE News journalist Ben Makuch speak about his experiences during a news conference on police surveillance and greater protection for journalists in Ottawa, Wednesday November 16, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA – The Liberal government is being urged to bring in legislation to better protect journalists and their confidential sources.

That was the message from three journalists who’ve had those freedoms obstructed – Patrick Lagace, Ben Makuch and Mohamed Fahmy – as well as Tom Henheffer, executive director for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

They offered three simple recommendations to the federal government during a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday, including the adoption of a press shield law ensuring journalists not be made to disclose their confidential sources.

READ MORE: Montreal police were issued warrant to listen to journalists’ calls: La Presse

Henheffer said almost all Western democracies have enacted such laws – including the U.S., Germany, Australia and the United Kingdom – and Canada must follow suit.

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Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Wednesday the government was ready to listen to suggestions from journalists, jurists and other actors.

A spokesman later told The Canadian Press it was premature to come to a conclusion on a press shield law until Quebec completes a public inquiry into the protection of journalists’ sources, a process that was announced on Wednesday and will run until 2018.

Independent Sen. Andre Pratte, a former journalist, proposed a mixed committee of senators and MPs to look into the issue.

“I think it’s a way to proceed that is more conducive than simply asking the government to table a bill right away,” Pratte said in a phone interview.

The former La Presse editorial writer said it’s clear something must be done to protect journalists’ sources soon and if the government isn’t prepared to act, then Pratte said he intends to by tabling a bill in the Senate.

The group in Ottawa on Wednesday called on the government to overhaul the rules for issuing warrants – that applications for such warrants must come from the Crown instead of police. They are also asking for the repeal of surveillance provisions in Bill C-13, which lowered the threshold of proof required to obtain warrants.

La Presse columnist Lagace, who had his phone tapped for months by Montreal police, believes it is a safe bet that what happened to him is happening elsewhere.

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“The police mentality is not different, whether you are in Saskatchewan, British Columbia or Quebec. I am convinced that other police agencies, if they can have access to this type of information, will try to do so without asking themselves any questions,” Lagace said.

The group also suggested a federal public inquiry is necessary to determine if the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service have been monitoring journalists in recent years.

The NDP had already called for one last May when it came to light that RCMP investigators tracked La Presse journalists Joel-Denis Bellavance and Gilles Toupin for nine days in August 2007.

Makuch, of Vice Media, has also found himself going up against the RCMP. The federal force is seeking information Makuch used in an article on a Canadian man the Mounties suspect is a terrorist.

READ MORE: Judge orders seal on Quebec columnist’s cellphone data collected by cops

Police have argued the material is crucial to their ongoing investigation.

Makuch’s case will be before Ontario’s Court of Appeal in February.

“It’s a difficult position to be in as a journalist, people say that ‘oh, you’re becoming an activist,” Makuch said. “But if we don’t stand up for our rights to do our jobs, then who will?”

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He risks imprisonment if the courts oblige him to give up his materials and he refuses to comply.

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