Canada high court rules journalists lack broad right to shield confidential sources

[JURIST] The Canadian Supreme Court [official website] ruled [judgment text] Friday that journalists do not have an automatic right to shield their sources and that decisions on who is entitled to remain anonymous will be made on a case by case basis. The ruling upholds an order requiring a former National Post reporter to turn over evidence to police in connection with an on-going investigation. In addition to ruling on the merits of the case, the court issued standards to be used in deciding future cases involving confidential sources. The court indicated that in the future a balancing of interests should occur, stating:

The public also has an interest in being informed about matters of public importance that may only see the light of day through the cooperation of sources who will not speak except on condition of confidentiality. The role of investigative journalism has expanded over the years to help fill what has been described as a democratic deficit in the transparency and accountability of our public institutions. There is a demonstrated need, as well, to shine the light of public scrutiny on the dark corners of some private institutions. In appropriate circumstances, accordingly, the courts will respect a promise of confidentiality given to a secret source by a journalist or an editor. The public's interest in being informed about matters that might only be revealed by secret sources, however, is not absolute. It must be balanced against other important public interests, including the investigation of crime. In some situations, the public's interest in protecting a secret source from disclosure may be outweighed by other competing public interests and a promise of confidentiality will not in such cases justify the suppression of the evidence.
The court also noted that, due to the numerous forms of alternative media in use today, it would be impracticable to apply a broad rule to every situation. A lawyer for the National Post indicated that while the ruling on the merits was disappointing [Toronto Star report], the clear guidelines laid out by the court are beneficial.

Protection for journalists [JURIST news archive] continues to be a worldwide concern. Last month, Germany announced plans to enact legislation [JURIST report] meant to increase freedom of the press. In February, the Icelandic Parliament [official website, in Icelandic] began considering measures [JURIST report] aimed at increasing protections for journalists and promoting freedom of speech and transparency in government. Last December, the US Senate Judiciary Committee [official website] approved a bill [JURIST report] that would protect journalists' abilities to shield sources in federal court proceedings. Reporters Without Borders [advocacy website] ranked Iceland number one in press freedom in 2009 [2009 rankings], while ranking Germany eighteenth, Canada nineteenth, and the US twentieth.

 

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