When the RCMP came calling

‘I can’t believe I live in Canada and this is happening’

Vice Media reporter Ben Makuch leaves Ontario Superior Court in Toronto on Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. RCMP are trying to force Vice to turn over materials related to interviews Makuch did in 2014 with suspected terrorist, Farah Shirdon, of Calgary. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel

Vice Media reporter Ben Makuch leaves Ontario Superior Court in Toronto on Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. (Colin Perkel, CP)

May 3 is UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day. In Ottawa, VICE reporter Ben Makuch will be recognized with the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom Award.  The Canadian journalist is currently fighting an RCMP seizure of his correspondence with a former Calgary resident alleged to be  an ISIS militant. In the piece below, which was written for the CCWPF, he writes about his ordeal.

It was right around the time that I was staring at Boris Nemtsov’s blood snake down the sidewalk of the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge in Moscow, spilling into the puddle I was standing in, that I thought, “Wow, am I glad that I live in Canada.” An opposition leader boldly assassinated under murky circumstances only steps from the Kremlin: the perfect image for the state of Russian free speech under Vladimir Putin.

Three days later I was on a flight back to Toronto. Two hours after I arrived, I received a text message from my editor, Patrick McGuire, telling me we urgently needed to meet. It was out of the ordinary for a text message at 12:30 a.m. on a Monday and I knew something was up.

We met at a quiet bar and McGuire didn’t waste any time.

“The RCMP served you; they want everything you’ve got on Shirdon. It’s top secret. There’s a publication ban on even talking about this production order. National security.”

It was right around that time that I thought to myself, “I can’t believe I live in Canada and this is happening.”

The funny thing is, back when I started contacting social media savvy Islamic State operatives advertising their escapades fighting and killing their way across Iraq and Syria, I knew the cops would eventually knock on my door. It was 2014 and the political powers in our nation’s capital tended not to play nice with journalists in general.

In other words, I saw the writing on the wall. Protecting the rights of a reporter, let alone one from a new media company headquartered in the hipster Mecca of Brooklyn, seemed low on the list of government priorities.

But then it actually happened: while in Russia, the RCMP came to the VICE offices in Toronto and Montreal demanding, via production order, that I hand over “any notes and all records of communications” between myself and former Calgary resident-turned alleged Islamic State militant, Farah Mohamed Shirdon, “respecting the means of effecting contact with Shirdon,” as well as “any electronic records of all communications” with Shirdon over Kik Messenger.

For the record, that meant they wanted the several text exchanges on Kik I had with Shirdon’s known account, always under the nom de guerre “Abu Usamah”. Plus, as a bonus, any notes, records on Abu Usamah or exchanges with colleagues discussing how I made contact with the Canadian-turned militant.

For most people, the memorable moments in life are things like a wedding day, graduating from high school or the birth of your kid. For me, seeing my name in an official production order from the national policing agency and its terrorism task force, all because of journalism, is now one of those moments.

What followed were nine months of silent purgatory. I watched as heated discussions over the niqab, laws like C-51 and rampant fear mongering about the terrorist boogeymen unfolded right in front of me in newspapers and during an entire federal election campaign. All the while, I knew the RCMP was demanding something of me that ran counter to my own ethics as a journalist and citizen of this country. People needed to know.

Many people have asked me in the last few months if I’ve been scared or if I’ve accepted that “everything you do is probably being spied on.” The answer is, I haven’t and I don’t care, respectively. Instead, I’ve been angry with how those who are trusted to protect our country from crime and violence would readily destroy one of the fundamental tools of our democracy: the freedom of the press.

Without that freedom, the tyranny of the state and society can go unchecked. Just ask North Koreans about their fifth estate. Without us journalists, there would be nobody scrumming ministers in Parliament or tired beat reporters scanning shady city budgets.

And I wouldn’t have obsessed over obscure jihadi Twitter profiles or contacted Islamic State fighters from our own country trying to understand why they’ve abandoned Canada to help unsettle an entire region. All I ever tried to do with my reporting on foreign fighters is get the other side of the story, however undesirable society may deem that side to be. Because that’s our job as reporters: to help get the whole story.

I’ve already lost my first challenge of that production order in the Ontario Superior Court. The judge essentially upheld what I always knew was true: the system offers limited shields to journalists and source protection or consideration for the sanctity of the news gathering process. To my mind, this is a problematic state of affairs in Canada. Any source should expect that whatever information they divulge to a reporter will not end up in the de facto hands of law enforcement. And yet, this is the precedent my case with the RCMP may set.

That alone will make even whistleblowers think twice about forking over vital information to a journalist in Canada, knowing full well they could be forcing that individual to choose between jail or divulging the origin and scope of their reporting. In this world journalists can be asked to do the work and investigations of police. As a Canadian citizen, I consider this a dangerous prospect.

As a reporter, I am not an agent of the government or an extension of its intelligence apparatus. They have politicians, spies, and cops for that. Instead, like so many journalists in Canada, I hold my craft to be sacred and objective. And no, I don’t care if my source is an alleged terrorist. I’d treat my communications with any source the same way: whether drug dealers, hackers, or soldiers who fought for our country in Afghanistan.

And I won’t stop. In fact, I just texted a jihadist.


When the RCMP came calling

  1. The writer states:

    “Plus, as a bonus, any notes, records on Abu Usamah or exchanges with colleagues discussing how I made contact with the Canadian-turned militant”

    I think you have it backwards Ben. I suspect the “militant” you are protecting was a terrorist before we gave him citizenship.

    In addition, you write:
    “Instead, I’ve been angry with how those who are trusted to protect our country from crime and violence would readily destroy one of the fundamental tools of our democracy: the freedom of the press.”

    Yes, Ben, I see your point. You are angry at the group of people who actually DO protect us from violence, while you are protecting the kind of person who WANTS to do violence to this country.

    You can hide behind the shield of “protecting your sources” but I think it’s pretty clear you are more concerned about getting the next “scoop” and don’t want to give up the man who has provided you with some stories.

    Tell you what, Ben…..the next time a terrorist takes out a bunch of Canadians, go to the grieving relatives and tell them the same line about how important it is to protect your sources.

  2. By the way Ben,

    You are aware that the terrorist you are protecting is using you more than you are using him. Don’t worry Ben, I’m certain the terrorist you are protecting will appreciate your efforts in helping him and his ISIS buddies get out their propaganda to recruit more Canadians to their cause.

    I’m sure he’ll kill you last.

  3. Ben- You need to grasp that you’ve crossed a line between getting to the “other side of the story” and aiding and abetting people who would kill us in a heartbeat. You’ve no moral high ground at stake here. These people are at war with us. If they were willing to communicate with you, that’s fine. But there would have been no problem with you handing over the notes requested. Had you done so, it could have been between you and the RCMP, and may have easily led to the hampering of ISIS operations. What if the info you provided was shown to have saved lives? Would that not have been as valuable to our society as your insistence on misguided journalistic integrity?
    I think you need to look a little deeper inside yourself on this. Not all resistance to authority is ethical.

    • I disagree. We need independent reporters to inform us of what’s going on in the world and why. Knowing why Canadian citizens would join Daesh is very important if we want to stop it from happening.

      If Mr. Makuch is forced to give over his notes – what about reporters covering the drug trade? Arms dealers? Poaching? Welfare fraud? Is our news going to come just from the law enforcement side of the issue?

      • Partridge,

        Try to look at it from this perspective, and ask yourself if what you wrote above still stands.

        Imagine that instead of talking to an Islamic terrorist, Ben was in contact with Paul Bernardo after he abducted his first victim. Bernardo described his method of abducting the girl, and why he enjoyed killing. Ben writes stories about serial killers, and what makes them tick. After reading the column in Ben’s paper, the police ask for the name of the killer so that they can protect other young girls from this rapist/murderer.

        Ben uses the “protecting my sources” line again.

        How do you think his argument about “freedom of the press” would fly with the parents of the next girl who was abducted and killed. What would Canadians think.

        would they be outraged, or would they use the same argument that you used above?

        Be honest.

        After reading his reporting on the missing girl

      • Partridge wrote:

        ” Knowing why Canadian citizens would join Daesh is very important if we want to stop it from happening.”

        You haven’t been paying attention Partridge. We already know what causes people to join terrorist groups in order to slaughter innocent people.

        It’s called Islam.

        Where have you been for the last 1,316 years.

        • Young men, and some women, have for the length of history gone off to do battle, For many reasons including excitement, get away from local or family problems and a host of other reasons that young people can come up with, Usually religion and politics only play a small part in tipping some people into action. There isn’t a time in recorded history that this has not happened. Setting a blame on Islam is comparable to setting blame on the catholic church for crusades or Thor for inciting vikings two thousand years ago. It is what young people do and some take advantage of. The numbers of Canadians headed to the middle east remain far from the thirty thousand that joined the U.S. forces during the Vietnam war.

          • You are an idiot.

            In fact, what you have written, Terry…..is so stupid and ill-informed, that I bet you are the only person who understands what you are trying to say.

            I’m sure your conversion to Islam went smoothly.

  4. Civil disobedience requires the willingness to go to jail. Otherwise it is just high-minded preening.

    If the reporter thinks it is a bad law, he should be willing to go to jail, on principle.

    Obama has used much harsher measures against American journalists. He should be glad that he isn’t an American.

    Vice was perfectly willing to cooperate with the PMO in denying the freedom of the press to news organizations that wanted to cover the PM’s visit to a remote aboriginal community, so it is hard to take Vice seriously on press freedom. They have just demonstrated that they are massive hypocrites on the issue.

  5. “I hold my craft to be sacred and objective.”

    Bullshit, at best the media outlets in this country only put on the pretense of being objective. Often they don’t even bother with that.

    • The Canadian media for the most part just stands in line for selfies with Trudeau.

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