Press Freedom

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.