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VICE News Fighting RCMP Order To Hand Over Files On Suspected Islamic State Fighter

10/31/2015 02:23 EDT | Updated 10/31/2015 02:59 EDT
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VICE News is fighting an RCMP order to hand over correspondence between one of its reporters and a former Canadian resident accused of joining the Islamic State.

RCMP say Farah Mohamed Shirdon left Canada in March 2014 to fight with the Islamic State in Syria. He has since been charged in absentia with several terrorism-related offences.

Shirdon was seen burning his Canadian passport and threatening Western countries in an Islamic State propaganda video in June 2014.

VICE News reporter Ben Makuch chatted with Abu Usamah -- believed to be an alias for Shirdon -- via Kik messenger and Twitter in spring of 2014, and used those interviews in his reporting on Shirdon.

In February of this year, RCMP entered VICE offices in Toronto and Montreal to serve Makuch and VICE News with a production order, which is similar to a search warrant. According to a statement by VICE Canada's head of content Patrick McGuire, VICE will be in court in January to fight the production order.

"VICE is contesting the production and sealing orders in court, on the principles of protecting any and all sources, protecting freedom of the press, and to avoid the situation wherein the Canadian news media becomes a veritable investigative arm of the law," McGuire wrote.

Makuch told CBC's As It Happens that he has already written about most of his correspondence with Shirdon, so he's not sure why the RCMP wants all this information.

"It seems like a fishing expedition," he says.

McGuire told The Huffington Post Canada that VICE is pursing legal action because they are not going to comply with the production order.

"The content of those interviews have been enough for the RCMP to lay charges in absentia against Shirdon," he said.

Until this week, a court-ordered sealing order prevented media organizations from reporting on the matter. McGuire said once Shirdon was charged, the RCMP lost a lot of their impetus for keeping VICE quiet.

McGuire added that VICE's legal action isn't about protecting a source, since Shirdon's identity is known to the public. But in light of incidents in Britain, where anti-terror legislation prompted the seizure of a BBC journalist's laptop, McGuire said he doesn't want the same thing happening Canada.

"We don't want to be setting a precedent," McGuire said.

Production orders attempting to seize a media organization's source material are rare, but not completely unheard of, according to The Globe and Mail.

In 2004, RCMP raided the home and office of Ottawa Citizen journalist Juliet O'Neill for her sources for a story on Maher Arar published in November 2003. Arar, a dual Canadian-Syrian citizen, was arrested by the U.S. government on accusations of terrorism and sent to Syria, where he was tortured. He was cleared of all charges and received a formal apology from the Canadian government in 2007.

Iain MacKinnon, the lawyer representing VICE, told the Toronto Star that whistleblowers would rather speak to a journalist than police officers, "and they should be free to do that." He says cases like this one might prevent those with information from coming forward.

“People may be chilled and fearful of speaking to reporters, because they’ll start wondering, is everything they say going to be just turned over to police,” MacKinnon told the Star.

McGuire said he's hoping the decision comes down in VICE's favour, because the issue affects readers and all informed Canadians.

"The biggest loser here is the Canadian public," he said.

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