The public has a right to know as much as possible about Omar Khadr before he is released from prison, especially since the federal government has repeatedly branded him an unrepentant terrorist, the Federal Court heard Monday.
In urging the court to force prison authorities to allow media to interview the former Guantanamo Bay inmate, their lawyer said the government itself had put the issue on the public stage.
"The Canadian public has a right to know and understand," media lawyer John Phillips told Judge Richard Mosley.
"No one knows who he is. This guy is going to be out and in the public. We have a right to know who he is before that happens."
The Toronto-born Khadr, who is not party to the media action, is seeking release on bail next month pending an appeal of his 2010 conviction before a widely maligned U.S. military commission. He is also seeking parole in June. His sentence expires in 2018.
The government routinely says it will fight any attempt to "lessen" his punishment for the "heinous acts" he committed as a 15-year-old in Afghanistan.
Phillips said the government has been "openly and vociferously" critical of Khadr.
"They have blocked any opportunity for Mr. Khadr to respond," he said.
In 2013, then-public safety minister Vic Toews squelched warden approval for a Khadr interview with The Canadian Press in what insiders described as extraordinary political interference.
Prison authorities subsequently turned down other media requests to interview Khadr, 28, who is serving out an eight-year sentence for war crimes in a medium-security facility in Alberta.
An interview would put Khadr's safety at risk and create inmate tensions by severely disrupting normal prison routines, authorities said.
The CBC, Toronto Star and White Pine Pictures want the courts to set that decision aside. They argue it violates media freedom and the public's right to know, as well as Khadr's right to express himself.
The government maintains the interview ban deserves deference and the courts should not be second-guessing it.
"The fact that we're talking about a prison poses unique concerns and considerations," government lawyer Sean Gaudet said.
Phillips said the reasons given for nixing an interview were "utterly insufficient."
Both sides were caught flat-footed when Mosley himself raised a 2012 case from Britain in which the BBC successfully challenged a government decision blocking a prison interview with a suspected terrorist.
In that case, the British court concluded the public should be "as fully informed as possible and make their own minds up."
Mosley said he would decide soon whether to ask for written submissions on the British case.
Saying "judges also read the newspapers," Mosley also wondered aloud whether he should "take judicial notice" of an opinion piece – purportedly written by Omar Khadr and published in October in the Ottawa Citizen – because it appeared to show the inmate has had access to the media.
Phillips countered there could be no substitute for an interview with a journalist asking tough questions.
Mosley reserved his decision.