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Canada22 January 2004

Journalist at risk of prison for having classified information after police search her home and office

Reporters Without Borders has expressed concern over Canadian police action against journalist Juliet O’Neill, of the daily Ottawa Citizen, who faces a possible prison sentence for possessing classified information.

The Canadian authorities said the journalist was suspected of breaching the Security of Information Act by using classified information. This law was passed after 11 September 2001 and its penalties include jail terms of up to 14 years for holding confidential government information.

The international press freedom organisation called on the authorities to back down and to allow the protection of journalist’s sources.

Officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) arrived at O’Neill’s home with a search warrant on 21 January. They seized personal property, her hard disk, files, adressbooks and notebooks. A further search was carried out simultaneously at her office. The court ordered all documents to be put under seal.

The search was linked to an article by O’Neill that appeared on 8 November 2003 about the case of Syrian-Canadian citizen Maher Arar. She had investigated the implication that the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) were involved in his expulsion to Syria, under suspicion of links with al-Qaida. He later said he had been tortured by the Syrian authorities.

Reporters Without Borders called for an immediate halt to the action against O’Neill and for her property to be returned to her.

"Protection of sources is the cornerstone of press freedom," said secretary general Robert Ménard. "If Juliet O’Neill received leaks from members of the security services, it is they who should be the subject of investigation not her," he said in a letter to police commissioner Juliano Zacardelli.

"This puts heavy pressure on journalists investigating the workings of national institutions, by which they are safeguarding democracy."

Reporters Without Borders also pointed out that Article 8 of the declaration of principles of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said, "Every social communicator has the right to keep his/her source of information, notes, personal and professional archives confidential".

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