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Canada21 January 2008

Federal court wants to violate “basic right” of journalists to protect their sources

(JPEG) Reporters Without Borders condemns a Montreal federal court ruling on 18 January ordering two journalists employed by the French-language daily La Presse, Joël-Denis Bellavance and Gilles Toupin, to identify the source of a leak at the request of Ardil Charkaoui, a terrorism suspect who was the subject of the leak. The newspaper is planning to appeal.

“It is quite surprising that the ‘basic rights’ of a person suspected of terrorism are being used as grounds to violate the basic right of journalists to protect their sources,” the press freedom organisation said. “While agreeing to Charkaoui’s request, the court cannot easily deny that it also wants to know the name of the journalists’ source. The judicial system has only itself to blame if it did not comply with a legal requirement to notify Charkaoui of the information concerning him.”

Reporters Without Borders added: “The press cannot be held responsible for an error of judicial procedure. This is not the first time that the confidentiality of journalists’ sources has been threatened in Canada. This federal court decision could have a lasting impact on the future of press freedom.”

The Montreal court ordered Bellavance and Toupin to reveal the source of a classified document from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) accusing Charkaoui, a 34-year-old Moroccan, of being an “Al-Qaeda sleeper agent” who received military and theological training in Afghanistan in 1998 and discussed hijacking a plane in Montreal with two other people in June 2000.

The two journalists reported the content of the leaked document in the Montreal-based La Presse on 22 June 2007 and the report was picked by Le Droit, a French-language daily based in Ottawa.

Arrested in May 2003, Charkaoui was held under a “security certificate” under which anyone suspected of jeopardising Canada’s security can be held for an extended period or deported. A court ordered his conditional release in 2005 subject to his wearing an electronic bracelet. His lawyers say he was never notified of the classified information that justified his security certificate, as the law requires. It was on these grounds that his lawyers asked federal judge Simon Noël to obtain the journalists’ source.

Bellavance and Toupin said they spoke to Charkaoui by telephone before writing their story but denied telling him that a retired CSIS official leaked the document to them. According to Canadian press reports, the confidential CSIS document was addressed to several federal ministries and to foreign intelligence agencies.

Photo : Joël-Denis Bellavance

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