Calling for a shield law so journalists can protect their sources

Across our chain today, I write:

Journalists in Canada have no legal right to protect their sources.

We were reminded of that last week, while Harper was in Europe, when the Supreme Court of Canada made a trio of rulings that, in effect, gave reporters working in Quebec a limited right to protect their confidential sources.

Had the court ruled otherwise, Globe and Mail reporter Daniel Leblanc would have had the difficult choice of going to jail or turning over in a civil trial the name of a confidential source that helped him blow open the Liberal sponsorship scandal.

But the same Supreme Court ruled in May that my QMI Agency colleague Andrew McIntosh had to turn over a key source that he used to uncover the Chretien Shawinigate scandal in 2001.

Leblanc, McIntosh and dozens of other journalists in Canada need to be able to protect their sources if they are to shine light into the state’s dark corners.

Many U.S. states — though, notably, not the U.S. federal government — now have something called a “shield” law for journalists that helps them do this, giving journalists the legal right to shield sources from a prying court.

In Canada, there are no shield laws and, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling last week, there are still no guarantees a journalist won’t face jail time if he or she is determined to shield a source.

That ought to change. Our federal government could become a global leader in advancing freedom of the press by introducing a responsible shield law to protect journalists serving the public interest…

Read the full column.

And, for a fascinating discussion on the issue of shield laws and some of the moral and legal issues when journalists are confronted with competing interests (i.e. protecting sources vs obeying court orders), I highly recommend Norman Pearlstine's Off the Record. Pearlstine, a former Wall Street Journal chief,  was the top editorial executive at Time Inc. when one of his reporters was ordered by a court to turn over notes related to whole Scooter Libby affair. Pearlstine at first is ready to risk hundreds of thousands of dollars of Time Inc. assets to protect a journalist's sources but eventaully comes around to the view that the right thing to do is, in fact, turn over the notes. He does so reluctantly, arguing that, at the end of the day, a journalism organization must obey the law if it is to have credibility when it lectures others to do so. But that doesn't mean the law is right and Pearlstine makes the case for some changes to the law — bring in some shield laws — but he also takes a hard look at the practice of journalism and finds that journalists, if they are to find some legal protection, must do more to earn that protection. Here, in fact, is his excellent “Editorial Guidelines” on the use of anonymous sources.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *