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Vice Media journalist Ben Makuch is seen outside the Ontario Court of Appeal on Monday, Feb. 6, 2017.The Globe and Mail

A reporter from Vice Canada will be required to turn over material to the RCMP from his interactions with an alleged terrorist, after a Supreme Court of Canada ruling Friday that weighed the press’s freedom to operate without fear of government interference against the need for police to investigate major crimes.

The court ruled 9-0 that Vice must adhere to a “production order” from the police force, which argued that it needed screenshots from a messenger app through which reporter Ben Makuch had communicated with Farah Mohamed Shirdon, a Canadian citizen who had left for Turkey allegedly to join the Islamic State. Mr. Makuch produced three stories on Mr. Shirdon in 2014, which were published by Vice.

The RCMP obtained the production order in 2015 while building a terrorism case against Mr. Shirdon. Vice had fought the order, but it was upheld by the Ontario Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court heard the case last May, with a Vice lawyer arguing that the case could be chilling because it “involves conscripting the media as [an] investigative arm of the state.”

Although all nine of the justices agreed that Vice’s appeal should be dismissed, they issued two opinions, both of which suggested tweaks in the rules governing search warrants as they apply to media. Writing for one group of five judges, Justice Michael Moldaver said lower-court judges issuing such warrants should more carefully balance the need to investigate crime with the media’s right to privacy in gathering and sharing news.

Writing for a group of four judges, Justice Rosalie Abella highlighted the need for investigators to prove to the courts that they have no alternative way of obtaining the desired information and that, further, the potential benefits of obtaining the information “outweigh the deleterious effects” on the media.

Legal observers emphasized that the case did not involve confidential sources, as Mr. Shirdon was not just identified but had attempted to spread the Islamic State’s cause through Vice.

“This is a dark day for press freedom, which is a basic tenet of democracy,” Vice declared in a statement. “While we’ve lost this battle, nothing can shake our belief that a free press is instrumental to a truthful understanding of the world in which we live.”

The company did not respond to a question from The Globe and Mail as to whether Mr. Makuch would comply with the production order. Mr. Shirdon is believed to have been killed in a 2015 airstrike in Iraq.

An array of two dozen advocacy groups and media companies had submitted interventions to the court on behalf of Vice, including Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Pen International, Global News, Postmedia Network Inc. and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In a statement on Friday, Reporters Without Borders said it was “alarmed” by the decision. “Compelling a journalist to hand over their communications with a source for the purpose of a police investigation directly undermines the independence journalists must enjoy in order to fulfill their news-gathering role.”

Others were more tempered, suggesting that the ruling did not roll back any protections journalists currently enjoy, and may have opened the door to strengthening them.

“I don’t think this is a step backwards. I think it’s disappointing [that] it’s not a bigger step forward,” said lawyer Paul Schabas, who represented a collection of international advocacy groups that intervened in the case.

“The majority – and it was a narrow majority – has effectively affirmed a test, a fairly vague and discretionary test, whereas the concurring decision of four judges recognized the need to give more weight to freedom of the press – which we all would have liked to have seen.” He noted that the test outlined by Justice Abella was similar to tests that exist in British law and European law, and in some U.S. states.

“It is not unusual for courts to be deferential when the state authorities say, look, we need information and we have reasonable grounds,” noted Carissima Mathen, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa. “I think because it involved the media, because of the profile, there were a lot of high hopes that were dashed.”

“I do think it’s a bit of a lost opportunity.”

She added that the outcome could be different the next time a case involving reporters’ sources goes to the Supreme Court, in light of the Journalistic Sources Protection Act, which was passed last year and was not taken into consideration in the current ruling. “I see this [ruling] as very much a placeholder. I don’t think this issue is over.”