Civil Litigation

Supreme Court decision not such a dark day for journalists: Winkler

By Staff

Free press advocates are overreacting to a Supreme Court of Canada decision that forced a journalist to hand over materials to police, Toronto lawyer and mediator Howard Winkler tells

All nine judges upheld a previous judgment ordering a Vice Media Canada reporter to turn over messages he exchanged with a Canadian citizen allegedly involved with ISIS, prompting a number of commentaries, including by the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) which called it a dark day for journalists in the country.

“This ruling is a serious setback for press freedom in Canada. It creates a chill for anyone who wants to speak truth to power or expose government wrongdoing,” the CAJ said in a statement to media.

But Winkler, principal and founder of Winkler Dispute Resolution, says the sentiment reflects an “exaggeration” of the ruling’s impact.

“In my opinion, the decision represents an appropriate balancing of the various interests at stake in the matter,” Winkler says. “I don’t think it’s a dark day for press freedom for a number of reasons.”

First, he says the judges emphasized in their decision that the case arose before the passage of the new federal Journalistic Sources Protection Act, which created a new framework for search warrants and production orders involving the media, and only came into force in October 2017.

“In terms of precedential value, it’s going to be limited, given the enaction of new legislation that provides specific protection for journalistic sources,” Winkler says.

In addition, the journalist’s source in the Supreme Court case was not one the reporter had offered confidentiality. In fact, the court found the man was keen to make contact with members of the media in order to broadcast his extremist views.

“When someone speaks or provides documents to media on the record, and there is no agreement of confidentiality, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in respect to those communications, and they may ultimately be disclosed, whether in civil litigation or as a result of a search warrant by a policing authority,” Winkler says. “If confidentiality had been at stake and the court ruled the same way, then depending on the circumstances, I could see the media being more concerned.”

The case has its roots in articles published in 2014 by the Vice Media journalist, based largely on communications he had with a Calgary man who left the country for Turkey earlier that year and later appeared in ISIS propaganda videos.

As part of its investigation into allegations the man had participated in terrorist activity and made death threats, the RCMP obtained an ex parte production order for the journalist’s notes.

Vice’s application to quash the order was dismissed by an Ontario Superior Court judge, whose decision was in turn upheld by the province’s appeal court.

Although the nine justices were united in the result, they split 5-4, disagreeing on the extent of tinkering required to the existing test for issuing search warrants and production orders against journalists.

Writing for the majority, Supreme Court Justice Michael Moldaver dismissed the appeal, finding “the state’s interest in investigating and prosecuting the alleged crimes outweighs the appellants’ right to privacy in gathering and disseminating the news.”

Moldaver endorsed the framework for granting such orders laid out in a landmark 1991 case, also decided by the Supreme Court, though he added that it should be refined, reorganizing the factors to be considered, and allowing for an assessment of the effect of prior partial publication on a case-by-case basis.

In addition, the majority decision modified the standard for reviews of ex parte orders, entitling media outlets to a de novo review if they can introduce information not heard by the authorizing judge.

Winkler says journalists should be more concerned about an upcoming case slated to be heard by the top court in the new year. That involves a Radio-Canada reporter appealing an order that she identify the sources for her story on corruption in Quebec.

“I think the issues in that decision will be much more illuminating and impactful,” he says.

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