A judge has ruled that a VICE News journalist must hand over all communications between him and an ISIS fighter to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
VICE News reporter Ben Makuch has been ordered to hand over chat logs, and screenshots of chats between him and Farah Shirdon, a 22-year-old Calgary man who allegedly left Canada in 2014 to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In September 2015, Shirdon has been charged in absentia with six terrorism-related crimes. The charges stemmed from an interview between Shirdon, Makuch and VICE CEO Shane Smith.
Following the charges against Shirdon, the RMCP and INTERPOL began looking for the accused terrorist and said they would need Makuch’s chats as evidence. VICE Media and Makuch have been fighting the court order, arguing that the chats, which took place on the Kik instant messenger app, would not provide any additional helpful intelligence. VICE has also been arguing that the court’s production order “would violate press freedoms and set a dangerous precedent for journalism in Canada.”
The court disagreed with VICE, ruling that law enforcement’s need to gather evidence overrides the rights of VICE and Makuch. VICE reported:
Specifically, the screen captures of the chats are “important evidence in relation to very serious allegations” and “The screen captures are a copy of the actual electronic messages that Shirdon placed on Mr. Makuch’s computer screen. They are highly reliable evidence that do not require a second hand interpretation,” Justice Ian MacDonell wrote in his decision.
VICE says they are reviewing the ruling and “giving serious consideration to appealing the decision.” VICE’s lawyer, Iain MacKinnon, worries that the ruling could set a precedent, leading similar production orders to become commonplace in Canada.
“It could have a very real chilling effect on the willingness of people and witnesses speaking to journalists,” said MacKinnon. “If people realize that what they say to a journalist could easily be handed over to police and used as part of a criminal investigation, that may scare somebody off in speaking to a journalist. That is a very real concern that, unfortunately, the judge did not address in his reasons, even though it was raised as a factor he should consider.”
The War on Journalism also extends to the United States of America. In 2013, the Free Flow of Information Act was reintroduced to “maintain the free flow of information to the public by providing conditions for the federally compelled disclosure of information by certain persons connected with the news media.” During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Senator Dianne Feinstein insisted that she would not support the bill if protections were offered beyond “covered journalists.” According to Feinstein, and the 2013 version of the bill, a journalist is “someone who is an employee, agent, or independent contractor for a media entity.” Senator Feinstein also fought against protection for Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks, and future whistleblowers.
While that bill did not survive the public backlash, it is interesting to note that the original reason the bill was revived in May 2013, was in response to the White House/Associated Press scandal. The scandal revealed that the Department of Justice had secretly gathered two months of phone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press. The Justice Department had records of outgoing work and personal phone calls for reporters in New York, Washington, and Hartford, Connecticut from more than 20 phone lines. The Justice Department was apparently looking for the source of an AP story that leaked details of a CIA operation in Yemen.
Later in 2013, a number of media organizations began rebelling against the Obama Administration’s restrictions which occasionally keep journalists from taking pictures and video of the president performing official duties. The Presidents of the American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Media Editors told their members to stop using the photos and videos the White House gives out, stating that the policy amounts to little more than propaganda.
In October 2013, the Committee to Project Journalists released a study detailing that reporters from a number of mainstream outlets believe the Obama administration to be the most secretive in recent memory. This sentiment was also echoed by New York Times editor Jill Abramson. Speaking to AlJazeera Abramson said, “This is the most secretive White House that, at least as a journalist, I have ever dealt with.”
The ruling by Canadian courts should remind all free hearts and minds that the War on Journalism and the Free Press is taking place all over the world. Tyrants and liars fear an informed population, and for that reason they work to limit and oppress real journalism. It has never been more important to become informed and to inform your friends and family. By educating ourselves and pursuing solutions we will create a more free, empowered world.
Derrick is available for interviews.
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