RCMP warrantless spying on journalists: We need stronger oversight and better journalistic ethics


By Monia Mazigh – “Bombshell”, “denounce”, “yikes”. These are some of the words used by some journalists or commentators to describe the recent news that some “rogue” elements of the RCMP, without any judicial warrant, put two journalists under physical surveillance over a certain period of time to probe a leak done by a CSIS agent to two Canadian journalists working at La Presse.

In our analysis of this news story, three main points should be made clear here:

  • Press freedom and freedom of expression are strong pillars of our democracy but reporting stories from anonymous sources is also an extremely “dangerous” business. It can bring truth to the public eyes as it can also damage the reputation of people if it turns out to be a lie or a half-truth fabricated by the intelligence officers. Journalists are supposed to do their work in accordance with some ethical standards. Unfortunately, it has not been the case. The desire of publishing a “scoop” or some exclusive material has trumped several times over the damage done to the life of the person subject of the leak. Juliet O’Neil did it in the past, as Maher Arar knows painfully well. Except for the courageous former Globe and Mail reporter, Jeff Sallot, no journalist has done his/her mea culpa. Ethics is an increasingly rare commodity in the journalistic world.
  • There is an ongoing competition between law enforcement and information-gathering authorities that pre-dated even the creation of CSIS. This competition or “foot stepping game” can bring similar cases where the police forces are investigation what the intelligence services are doing. What should be emphasized and remembered here is that Bill C-51 granted additional powers to CSIS that would allow them to step into the law enforcement territory. CSIS recently acknowledged that they used these new powers and that they will continue using them. Does this mean we should expect more spying activities from one agency on the other and more collateral damages in between?
  • The article reported that these are “rogue” elements within RCMP who conducted such warrantless surveillance. Once again, the simplistic explanation seems to prevail when we pinpoint to controversial activities conducted by law enforcement or intelligence forces. How about CRA information of Canadian citizens obtained by CSIS without warrants? Rogue elements did it and they stopped afterward… How about information about Canadian citizens shared with foreign agencies that led to the torture and arrest of the former?  “Bad apples” among the forces did it but we will be more careful next time… This has been going on forever. I am almost tempted to say it is the rule rather than the exception!

The moral of the story isn’t solely about the importance of freedom of expression, but also about the importance and the urgent need to implement oversight and review mechanisms so that our national security agencies will be held accountable, and no leaks will be made to destroy people’s lives, and no journalists will be spied on and put under surveillance.