A Canadian appeals court upheld Wednesday a ruling ordering a journalist to hand over records of his communications with an alleged member of the ISIS group to federal police.
VICE Media Canada had appealed the March 2016 order by the Ontario Superior Court obliging VICE News reporter Ben Makuch to turn over records of his online chat with Farah Shirdon.
Shirdon, a Canadian charged in absentia in September 2015 with leaving the country to join a banned terrorist group, threatening Canada and its allies, and related offenses, is suspected of involvement with ISIS. The appeals court’s decision Wednesday to uphold the order set off an outcry from the reporter’s company and press freedom groups.
“VICE Media is prepared to do whatever it takes to support and defend our reporter, and our friend, Ben Makuch,” said VICE Canada president Ryan Archibald in a statement, suggesting the case could be taken to the Supreme Court.
“His investigations into the complex world of cyber terrorism and digital security matter more now than ever,” he said. Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and a coalition of press freedom groups jointly condemned the ruling.
“If journalists cannot protect their sources, then the information they provide will dry up, leaving Canadians uninformed and democracy impoverished,” said CJFE executive director Tom Henheffer in a statement.
Among those protesting the court ruling was international press freedom group Reporters without Borders. The organization “is deeply concerned by the recent deterioration of the respect for journalists’ independence and the confidentiality of their sources in Canada,” said Delphine Halgand, RSF North America director.
The decision, if confirmed by the Supreme Court, sets a precedent that could make sources hesitant about communicating with journalists for fear of reprisals, noted the CJFE statement.
Last year, the Ontario Superior Court upheld an order by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police demanding Makuch turn over information, including screenshots of an online chat between him and Shirdon.
In the March 2016 ruling, Ontario Superior Court Justice Ian MacDonnell said that the information was important evidence in a serious criminal case, in which there is a strong public interest.
The judge noted that Shirdon was not a confidential source and that VICE had published most of the information sought by police, who simply needed proof Shirdon had been in the Middle East in order to prosecute him.