Laws on protecting journalists’ sources not being followed, says retired justice John Gomery

The creation of a commission of inquiry into spying by Quebec police on journalists is a necessary step, but the public shouldn’t expect it to solve the problem, says retired Quebec Superior Court justice John Gomery.

Gomery, who led the commission of inquiry into the federal sponsorship scandal between 2004 and 2006, said such bodies are essential to help restore public confidence in the rule of law.

“A public inquiry is a good way to find out what happened, but as far as developing policy for the future, I’m not sure it’s the best way to go,” he told CBC News.

Role of JPs in the spotlight

Gomery said one of the commission’s useful functions will be to shed light on the role played by justices of the peace in the growing scandal.

Earlier this week, La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé revealed that a justice of the peace had authorized at least 24 surveillance warrants to track his iPhone’s GPS chip this year at the request of a Montreal police special investigations unit.

That led to revelations over the last two days that at least six other Quebec journalists were targeted by provincial police surveillance operations.

“I think one of the problems is that it became a matter of routine and [the justices of the peace] were continually being requested by the same people to issue the same warrants over and over again,” Gomery said.

“Instead of examining each request on its merits, they endorsed them rather carelessly and too quickly. And that’s what happens when an overload of work is imposed upon a small number of justices of the peace,” he said.

The number of justices of the peace authorizing such warrants, as well as their training and competency, should be reviewed to ensure they understand the law, Gomery said.

“Maybe the whole institution has to be re-examined. I think that will be one of the results of the inquiry,” he said.

No need for new laws

Gomery said he doesn’t see the need for new laws to protect journalists, pointing to a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that placed strict limits on when courts can compel reporters to disclose sources.

“Legislating might give the political parties concerned a feeling that they are doing something, but I’m not sure that’s necessary,” he said.

“The courts have laid down the rules, and they simply haven’t been followed.”

Call to beef up whistleblower legislation

The president of Quebec’s federation of journalists, Jean-Thomas Léveillé, said one law that the organization would like to see improved is the province’s proposed whistleblower legislation, known as Bill 87.

“Bill 87 does not protect sources. It’s a joke,” Léveillé said.

“I think this is a good occasion to pass a law, and a good law to protect sources,” he added.

He also criticized a stipulation in the proposed law that whistleblowers speak with police before going to the media.

“We see this week that police are part of the problem,” he said. 

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