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Wearing sheep’s clothing

Exploiting the media for political cover

The media is always susceptible to those using it to settle vendettas, but until recently, journalists have been essentially complicit with such tactics. Now, some Canadian law enforcement agencies are taking a page from the military play-books and using the media to accomplish their own work.

In Ontario, OPP officers impersonated a TV crew to spy on some native protestors; this week the RCMP raided a journalist�s home to discover the source of a leak.

The OPP case garnered attention for the racist language used by officers the day before a protestor was killed. The RCMP case, however, could establish a stifling precedent for all Canadians.

Political interference

The raid marks another chapter in the cloak-and-dagger story of Maher Arar, a Canadian wrongfully deported by the U.S. to Syria because of his alleged terrorist links. The targetted journalist, Juliet O’Neill, reported on Canadian intelligence documents that supported those allegations. The RCMP wants know how she got them and used the Security of Information Act to find out.

That new anti-terrorism law prevents, among other things, the unauthorized possesion and/or distribution of sensitive government documents — meaning O’Neill could face 14 years in jail. (The fact that PM� surprisingly proclaimed her innocence suggests such a stiff sentence is unlikely.)

As I recently said to a colleague, journalists have to be seen by the public as independent of the government. This is especially true in Canada, where journalists legally have no more rights than does the average person. Without that independence, whistle blowers won’t come forward and the public won�t be able to trust the media�s integrity.

Conversely, if journalists are presented with sensitive government documents, the O’Neill precedent suggests they should immediately alert the authorities instead of the Canadian public.

Press freedom

On the day of the RCMP raid, an Ontario Superior Court judge, Madam Justice Mary Lou Benotto, ruled that the evidence of a crime alone cannot override the rights of a free press. She, too, argued that that the public relies on the media to report on the activity of its leaders. “The expectation that a source will remain confidential,” she wrote, “is often the very reason people feel free to go to the press. Often the more explosive a story is, the greater risk to the informant if he or she is exposed.”

Ironically, her decision, had it been release even a day earlier, might have prevented the RCMP’s search of O’Neill’s home.

The next World Press Freedom Day is May 3, 2004.