TORONTO — A Canadian news outlet is asking an appeal court to throw out a ruling forcing one of its journalists to give the RCMP records of interviews he did with an accused terrorist.
Documents filed this week show Vice Media also wants the Ontario Court of Appeal to allow publication of the information police relied on to get their order for the records.
“This appeal raises issues concerning one of the hallmarks of a democratic society — a free and independent press,” the appeal application states.
“Journalists’ ability to pursue the truth without fear of reprisal or interference is essential to every facet of Canadian life.”
Vice argues that the RCMP demand would have a “detrimental chilling effect” on journalism in Canada if it is allowed to stand.
Last month, Superior Court Justice Ian MacDonnell ordered Vice and reporter Ben Makuch to turn over background materials related to stories about Farah Shirdon.
Three Vice stories in 2014 were largely based on conversations Makuch had with Shirdon via an online instant messaging app called Kik Messenger. RCMP want access to Makuch’s screen captures of those chats.
Among other things, Makuch cited Shirdon, of Calgary, as saying from Iraq: “Canadians at home shall face the brunt of the retaliation. If you are in this crusader alliance against Islam and Muslims, you shall see your streets filled with blood.”
RCMP charged the Toronto-born Shirdon, 22, in absentia last September with several offences, including leaving Canada to participate in the activity of a terrorist group, taking part in the activity of a terrorist group, and threatening Canada and the U.S. Police say the material is crucial to their ongoing investigation against him.
“The screen captures are important evidence in relation to very serious allegations,” MacDonnell said in his ruling. “There is a strong public interest in the effective investigation and prosecution of such allegations.”
MacDonnell also banned publication of information police relied on to obtain their court order saying it was necessary to preserve Shirdon’s right to a fair trial _ should he ever be arrested and tried.
In a case closely watched by media and free-speech advocates who have condemned the ruling, Vice argues that being forced produce the records would “violate the compact” that allows investigative reporters to do their jobs.
“Similarly placed sources will have serious reservations about speaking with the press,” the appeal application states. “In the end, the public will know less about the crucial and evolving public threat of ISIS, as well as other important stories.”
Vice also argues that journalists in possession of sensitive or incriminating material could be exposed to violence if they are unable to shield sources from the police and government.
The filings assert MacDonnell made numerous errors, among them failing to properly consider the potentially damaging effect on Makuch and journalists in general. Vice also argues police already have the information they need to prosecute Shirdon.
Makuch has previously said reporters don’t want to live in fear that talking to sources could lead to a production order from police. He also said he would be prepared to go to jail to keep the information out of RCMP hands.
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said recently he was sensitive to the need for journalists to be able to do their jobs without RCMP interference, but he also said the courts should be able to weigh when reporters have evidence important to a criminal case.