The Liberal government has agreed to offer greater protection to journalists and their confidential sources, at the same time as the federal Information Commissioner criticizes the government for a lack of transparency in the release of official records.
A government official confirmed on Thursday that the Liberals will back Bill S-231, which would make it harder for police to obtain search warrants to gain information about journalists' confidential sources.
The author of the bill, Conservative Senator Claude Carignan, said the government will only propose "technical amendments" to the bill, calling the endorsement a "giant step" for freedom of the press.
The proposed legislation was tabled last November after police sought warrants to obtain the telephone records of a total of eight journalists in Quebec, sometimes going back five years, and to track a reporter using his cellphone. The bill was broadly supported by large media organizations as well as journalists' groups.
Canada's rank in the World Press Freedom Index fell to 22nd place this year in large part because of the absence of legal protection for confidential sources.
Mr. Carignan said he hopes that, with the Liberal government's support, the bill, which has already been approved by the Senate, will quickly go through the House of Commons.
"This is an important message that is being sent to law-enforcement authorities," he said in an interview.
The amendments to be revealed by the government on Friday will aim to ensure that the bill does not have unforeseen consequences on other legislation and does not protect reporters when they are suspected of a crime or are themselves under investigation, sources said.
The government's position will be explained by Marco Mendicino, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Justice, a government official said.
Meanwhile, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault used her office's annual report to sharply criticize the government for its "broken promise" to reform the law that provides access to government documents to every Canadian.
"Our investigations reveal, once again, that the Act is being used as a shield against transparency and is failing to meet its policy objective to foster accountability and trust in our government," Ms. Legault said. "Comprehensive reform of the Act is essential and long overdue, especially in the face of the expanding information realities of the 21st century. A lot of work needs to be done before this government can meet its transparency promises."
In her report, the Information Commissioner pointed out that she has particular concerns about the performance of the following agencies in following the Access to Information Act: National Defence, Health Canada, Global Affairs Canada, RCMP, Canada Revenue Agency and Correctional Services Canada.
Mr. Carignan's Bill S-231, which would amend the Criminal Code and the Canada Evidence Act, would not inoculate journalists from police powers to get search warrants, but it would make those powers harder to use.
For example, only high-court judges could endorse such warrants, instead of lower-ranking justices of the peace, as is currently the case in many circumstances.
Should such judicial permissions be granted, the fruits of any such searches against a journalist would be immediately sealed. Journalists would then have to be notified and given the ability to fight in court, before the police would have access to the data.
Mr. Carignan said the legislation would do a better job of protecting journalists and their sources than the current situation, in which police and judges are asked to abide by a series of legal rulings.