Reporters Without Borders today hailed a court ruling overturning a 2004 “contempt of court” verdict against journalist Ken Peters, of the daily Hamilton Spectator, for refusing to reveal his source for articles he wrote on alleged abuses at a retirement home.
The Ontario appeal court yesterday quashed the contempt conviction against the journalist who had escaped prison but had been ordered to pay 31,600 dollars in legal costs. This financial penalty was also overturned.
“We hail the Ontario appeal court decision, which marks a victory for the protection of sources, the cornerstone of the journalist’s profession”, the worldwide press freedom organisation said.
Peters, a municipal affairs reporter in the Hamilton suburb of Toronto, was passed documents in 1995 which alleged serious problems at the St Elizabeth Home Society. After he wrote a series of articles, the retirement home sued for defamation against the Hamilton-Wensworth region, the Hamilton municipality and its former mayor.
After a long-running legal battle, Judge David Crane, of the Hamilton court, ordered Peters to reveal the name of the person who had given him the documents. Peters refused to comply with the judge’s order, but the man in question - former city alderman, Henry Merling - identified himself as the source. The journalist therefore avoided criminal prosecution and a possible jail sentence.
But a civil court, on 1st December 2004, convicted Peters of “contempt of court” and ordered him to pay court costs of 31,600 dollars.
“Ken Peters’ conviction in the lower court was not only dangerous in principle, but also absurd since the source had already revealed himself”, Reporters Without Borders said. “We hope that this judicial outcome will create jurisprudence and be taken up at the federal level. Other Canadian journalists are currently facing proceedings for the same reason as Ken Peters”, the organisation added.
The Ontario appeal court ruling on the Peters case, comes shortly after a decision with the opposite effect handed down by the same court in February, forcing another Toronto daily, the National Post, to hand documents over to the court received from an anonymous source. A new measure in the federal criminal code, which came into force on 15 September 2004, obliges the press to hand over notes, documents, and sound or video recordings which could help resolve a criminal investigation.
Protection of sources suffered another setback, this time at the federal level in Montreal on 18 January, when Joël-Denis Bellavance and Gilles Toupin, of the French-language daily La Presse, were ordered to reveal the name of an informant at the request of a person accused of “terrorism” (see release of 21 January 2008).