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Journalist Shield Law A Long Overdue 1st Step For Canada

06/15/2017 01:27 EDT | Updated 06/15/2017 01:27 EDT

Support by the federal government of a shield law for journalists is certainly welcomed. In fact, it is long overdue in this country. The move will bring Canada in line with other democracies such as the United States and Britain.

Journalists, whose work is essential to a functioning democracy, need to be able to do their jobs without fear of facing prosecution.

journalist notes

(Photo: Seb_ra via Getty Images)

The Journalistic Sources Protection Act, S-231, would help journalists protect their confidential sources by making it tougher for police to spy on journalists or seize documents that could reveal their sources. Conservative Senator Claude Carignan introduced the bill in the Senate last November after news broke that Montreal police had spied on 10 journalists in Quebec through their phones to determine who their sources were for a number of scandal-related stories.

In a rare move, the governing Liberals have indicated they will throw their support behind the private member's bill, with a few minor amendments that Carignan has agreed to.

Such laws are needed because when a journalist digs out a piece of information that the rich and the powerful would prefer never saw the light of day, we all benefit. Independent reporting can help us better understand our communities and our world, and make more informed decisions at the ballot box.

VICE Canada reporter Ben Makuch is before the courts after he wrote about a Canadian who fought for ISIS. Makuch communicated with the fighter through a chat app, trying to understand his motivations and how he was recruited.

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Ben Makuch, who the RCMP is demanding hand over his notes and interviews, heads into court in Toronto. (Photo: Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

As disturbing as such stories are, this kind of reporting is vital to broadening awareness and our collective consciousness and it can help the effort to prevent other young men and women from being drawn to such radical ideas. Makuch and VICE are now in court fighting police attempts to seize the chats used for the story to track down the person Makuch was talking to.

To many, that's an understandable desire by police. But for Makuch, it means revealing a source. If sources think that their identities will not be kept safe by a journalist, they will be less likely to talk to reporters -- and that will mean fewer crucial stories being uncovered and provided to the public. We all suffer when that happens. Our democracy suffers.

Even when a source refuses to attach his or her name for a story, the reporter still does. Their names at the top of the story, along with the outlet they work for, are their signal that the source is reliable and can be trusted.

Reporters rarely use unnamed sources, but when they do, it's only when the story cannot be told any other way and the story is important enough to the public interest. As part of its transparency project, the Toronto Star recently outlined such strict criteria for unnamed sources.

A shield law for journalists in this country is a welcomed first step.

But all the protections to help journalists do their job are weakened if the outlets they work for are unable to survive the turmoil in the industry today.

Media outlets of all types are in fights for attention and existence as the Internet continues its severe disruption of the industry.

At one time, ads printed in newspapers and magazines or broadcast over the airwaves paid for the work done by the journalists.

Today, that funding model is falling apart as Google and Facebook claim the ads that once paid for quality print and broadcast journalism.

For that reason, while the federal government's plan to bring in a shield law for journalists in this country is a welcomed first step, much more needs to be done.

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(Photo: Mikeinlondon via Getty Images)

The federal Heritage Committee is due to release its report into the state of the media industry and the future of Canadian Content rules in the digital age.

The report is expected to provide some ideas for guiding the Canadian media sector through the turbulent years ahead, and comes on the heels of the Shattered Mirror report this past January into the challenges facing the industry.

In the weeks and months ahead, including at the Unifor Media Council meeting of journalists and media members from across Canada next week, our union will be taking an active role in finding real solutions to help our vital media sector survive and set a solid foundation for the future.

A shield law will help journalist do their important work, but we also need to safeguard the survival of the outlets and the workers to get stories out to the public. The Canadian government needs to ensure both priorities are given the attention needed.

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