Journalists’ anonymous sources to be protected under new federal law

Gerard Deltell rises during Question Period in the House of Commons. Adrian Wyld/CP

The federal government passed a bill Wednesday that offers greater protection to journalists who are asked to share information on anonymous sources with police.

Known as the Journalistic Sources Protection Act, Bill S-231 outlines that reporters do not have to disclose information or documents that could identify these contacts. This applies to all anonymous sources unless the information cannot be obtained another way, or there is significant public interest (for example, security reasons).

COMMENTARY: Democracy needs strong journalism. This law will help us bring that to you

The private member’s bill, first introduced by Conservative Sen. Claude Carignan in November, was adopted unanimously by the House of Commons. Conservative MP and former journalist Gerard Deltell sponsored the bill in the House.

The Quebec MP lauded the bill as a “victory for Canada” and whistleblowers in an interview with Global News. He added strong support for the bill across party lines emphasizes all politicians recognize the importance of protecting journalists.

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The newly passed bill, which is still awaiting royal assent, will amend the Criminal Code so only a Superior Court judge can issue search warrants for journalistic sources. It will also update the Canada Evidence Act to protect the anonymity of sources. Until royal assent is given, judges in lower courts are able to grant warrants to police to access journalists’ sources.

Deltell says the new rules will protect both journalists and police.

“We are protecting whistleblowers, but at the same time, we are also protecting police officers, who need to do their due diligence,” he said in September.

“The difference is that the police will have even greater moral authority whenever they need to intervene, because they will have received authorization from a Superior Court judge.”

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The passage of the bill was welcomed by media organizations in Canada.

“This has been a long time coming and marks a major step forward for journalistic freedom in Canada,” said Troy Reeb, senior vice-president, Global News, Corus Radio and station operations.

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Government will not ‘bail out’ failing news models, but support ‘experimentation’ – Sep 28, 2017

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), which lobbied the government to pass the bill, also praised the move.

“We applaud parliamentarians for taking this historic step to protect press freedom in Canada,” Tom Henheffer, the executive director of CJFE said in a press release.

“This bill is the beginning of full legal recognition for the role that journalists play in serving the public and protecting democracy.”

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But Henheffer said the bill falls short of addressing some problems faced by reporters.

READ MORE: Canadian media to intervene in RCMP battle with Vice

“Many of the definitions are still too restrictive, including who can legally call themselves a journalist,” he noted.

The organization added in the release that the definition of “journalistic source” in the bill doesn’t protect sources who are not anonymous.

READ MORE: Vice Media challenges RCMP demand for reporter materials in top Ontario court

It noted the limited definition won’t help the high-profile case of VICE News journalist Ben Makuch, who is currently fighting demands from the RCMP to turn over his communications with Farah Shirdon, a Calgary man who is believed to have died while fighting for the Islamic State in the Middle East.

Makuch could face jail time for refusing to hand over the information and is looking to appeal the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In a statement, Vice News called the new law “bittersweet,” because it will not apply to their case.

Deltell told Global News protecting all sources is not the purpose of the bill, but changes are always possible.

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“We’ll see how things are running in a few years,” he said.

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