A sudden tug of war between the Charest government and journalists caused a shock wave the echoes of which have rippled through throughout the Canadian journalistic profession. A jolt that could help realize how the “lawful access” bill introduced this Monday, Feb. 13 also concerns journalists and media organizations.
Last week, the Charest government announced that the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions and the Sureté du Québec (provincial police force) would investigate on leaks to media related to the Ian Davidson case, a retired Montreal police officer suspected of attempting to sell lists of police informants to organized crime. Neither the Minister of Public Safety Robert Dutil, nor Premier Jean Charest have agreed to guarantee that journalists would not be investigated or wiretap.
These announcement and government statements have provoked a vehement outcry from journalists and news organizations. They consider that such an investigation threatens freedom of the press. The mere possibility that journalists can be compelled to disclose their sources, be subjected to electronic surveillance or searches creates a chilling effect on investigative journalism and the sources upon which it relies. Let us recall that the last three years, the Quebec political scene was dominated by shocking revelations from investigations conducted by all major news outlets. Remember also that provincial elections are imminent.
A technological defense
This event brought, Michel Dumais, a journalist observer of information technology, to publish a series of texts (first one here) in which he calls on journalists to encrypt their digital files and to use anonymization services to protect their Internet browsing and their communications with sources. For him, it is time to use the same means already used by journalists in countries in conflict or with authoritarian regimes. Such an appeal of the former editor of the ProjetJ observatory of journalism (the French language sister site of J-Source, both Canadian Journalism Foundation’s projects) is likely to cause various reactions within the profession, from disbelief to serious consideration of these measures.
But as I noted in a previous text, the “lawful access” legislation threats to specifically outlaw anonymization services, such as Tor, which are used by journalists all around the world. A fact that Dumais acknowledges also.
I also previously observed that, so far, the media had not paid much attention to earlier versions of the “lawful access” bills. Now that the Conservative government has both hands free to adopt the new bill, Canadian journalists should realize that:
- they are also among the potential, direct or secondary, targets of such surveillance of digital communications, and that
- their own work tools - for sure, those of their colleagues around the planet - are also threatened.
Within days, a provincial government leaves open the possibility of communications surveillance of journalists and the federal government identifies environmental groups as a potential terrorist threat, then announces that it introduces a bill to facilitate the systematic surveillance of digital communications. Journalists and news media should scrutinize this bill about “Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications” They must informed themselves and inform us of the risks it presents to freedom of the press. They must informed themselves and inform us of the risks to a society aspiring to be a free and democratic one.
Journalists and news media should even take sides.