The heads of some of Canada's biggest media organizations have strongly endorsed a federal bill that would offer greater protection to journalistic sources, stating recent police probes in Quebec have had a chilling effect on whistle-blowers across the country.
In an appearance at a Senate committee on Wednesday evening, officials at six large newsrooms said public-interest journalism can only thrive if sources feel their anonymity is adequately protected, which they say is currently not the case in Canada.
"It's our contention that if the measures [in Bill S-231] are adopted, the hammers in the police tool box will no longer be used to smash internal leakers or harass journalists," said Michael Cooke, editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star.
"Canada is one of a few Western democracies without some form of journalist shield law. It's a tiny club and we should not be a member."
The proposed legislation was tabled last November after police obtained 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 in one instance.
The Globe and Mail's editor-in-chief, David Walmsley, said sources are increasingly shy about sharing information with the organization's reporters for fear of retribution.
"We're here because [confidential sources] are facing enormous threats," Mr. Walmsley said.
"They haven't walked away from us, but … there is a broader chill and awareness."
Mr. Walmsley pointed out that The Globe spent nearly $1-million in legal fees in 2009 and 2010 to protect the identity of a source whose revelations years earlier exposed what became known as the sponsorship scandal.
While The Globe won its case in front of the Supreme Court, the recent cases in Quebec have shown that police have yet to treat journalistic sources with proper respect, he said.
Still, Mr. Walmsley insisted the problem was not confined to Quebec, echoing statements from officials at Le Devoir and CBC. "It's a federal issue," he said.
Bill S-231 has been tabled by Conservative Senator Claude Carignan to amend the Criminal Code and the Canada Evidence Act.
The proposed private member's bill 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 told the Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs that a free press is a critical component of any democracy, and that whistleblowers are essential to keeping authority in check.
The bill was endorsed by many members of the Senate committee, which he said would eventually help to ensure its passage in the House of Commons.
"I expect that the government would take note if there was a strong majority in favour of the bill in the Senate," Mr. Carignan said.
The media organizations suggested one main amendment to the bill, which would force judges to hear from a special advocate from the media before issuing a warrant that could expose a journalist's sources.
Officials at La Presse and Radio-Canada condemned the fact the most recent cases featured "fishing expeditions" in which police tried to find whistleblowers inside their respective services.
"It was a serious violation of the freedom of the press," said Michel Cormier, head of the news service at Radio-Canada.