Remember when Rob Ford was mayor, and held a press conference where only certain pre-approved journalists were allowed in? Maybe you don’t. It should have been a big deal to journalists, who are not supposed to take orders from politicians, and who ought to favour broad media access over a political bully’s list of preferred guests. Instead, most of the invited journalists attended, because they wanted to or because their bosses told them to. Ford won and journalism lost because we refused to take a principled, united stand against his tactics.
Many in our profession do not recognize the importance of not taking our orders from the government. It’s easier for governments to co-opt our work when we don’t stand up for one another. That’s why journalists should be supporting Vice Media and its reporter Ben Makuch, who are currently fighting a court battle to practice journalism without excessive government interference. The RCMP wants Makuch and Vice to hand over notes from his conversations with a suspected terrorist. Many in the public may not recognize the danger of such a request, but every journalist should, and we should oppose it in unison.
For a year, the Mounties have been trying to get hold of all correspondence between Makuch and a Calgary resident named Farah Shirdon, whom the RCMP accuses of leaving Canada to participate in terrorist activities with Daesh. Makuch first contacted Shirdon in 2014, and wrote three articles about him that year. The Mounties say Makuch’s notes contain evidence of Shirdon’s crimes, and served him with a search warrant last year at Vice’s offices. The journalist and his publication have refused to hand over the notes, and the issue is now before an Ontario court.
State meddling into journalism is far more of a threat to Canadians than the alleged terrorist affiliations of an individual. Shirdon’s message for Canadians who support war with Daesh is chilling: “you shall see your streets filled with blood.” Such a view ought to be public, and we have Makuch to thank for interviewing Shirdon and exposing his hateful views. But journalists do not work for the RCMP, and should be free to do our jobs without the government looking over our shoulders, or denying us the confidentiality we need to find sources and get information.
The fact that the feds are asking Makuch how he contacted an alleged terrorist should rattle any independent-minded journalist. None of your business, thanks. If such a request is admissible, why not ask Makuch to turn over all his files, for this issue or any other, in case they contain something else the RCMP finds interesting? Why shouldn’t media organizations keep a log of all correspondence, and hand it over to the cops at regular intervals, just to be safe?
If media sources think they are communicating, either directly or indirectly, with the police, they won’t talk to us. That’s not a problem if you believe the government needs dominion over any information about our safety. But if we want someone other than the state to provide information on public safety or any matter of public interest, we need an independent media.
The police do not seem worried about encroaching on press freedom. On the contrary, various police forces in Canada have even taken to posing as journalists in order to trick civilians into talking to them, and say they’d do it again if they believe public safety is at risk. Journalists have gone to court to argue that such a police practice violates the Constitution and puts a chill on a free press. So far the courts are siding with the police.
Some folks don’t understand why a journalist would ever want to protect someone as seemingly vile as Shirdon. Why not help police with their investigation into an allegedly violent extremist? The simple answer is that this is not the media’s responsibility to trust and assist the police. This doesn’t make it our job to thwart and obstruct them either, particularly where public safety is concerned. For the sake of our profession, we need the freedom to decide.
Makuch faces a fine or jail time if he loses his legal battle. If that happens, I’ll be first in line to open my wallet. I’d even serve some of his jail time if I was allowed. If journalists value the independence of the media, we can’t let the police, courts and governments direct our work, or allow them to seize it under the false notion that public safety and independent journalism are at odds.
Desmond Cole is a Toronto-based journalist.