Peter W. Klein is the founder and executive director of the Global Reporting Centre
It's like a scene out of a spy thriller. Two RCMP undercover officers, posing as a literary agent and publisher, lure a kidnapper to a hotel room in Dubai, and eventually to Ottawa, to discuss a six-figure publishing deal, which requires him to disclose the details of his crime. Ali Omar Ader was allegedly complicit in the abduction, torture, rape and ransom of Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout, and as a result of the ruse, he is now before an Ontario Superior Court on kidnapping charges.
The arrest was the culmination of a five-year-long operation, Project SLYPE, which included wiretaps, surveillance and a host of other clandestine activities. There's a certain elegance to the trickster getting tricked, and there is definitely a sense of retribution and justice that Ms. Lindhout deserves. Yet, I can't help but feel uncomfortable about federal agents posing as media professionals.
That unease may be because of the history of law-enforcement and intelligence agents masquerading as journalists, often leading to tragic consequences.
Two years ago, a group of media organizations went before an Ontario court arguing that provincial police impersonating reporters constitutes a Charter violation. They cited examples, such as when a provincial officer posing as a cameraman spied on a Mohawk protest and developed evidence for an arrest, and a case in which officers filmed protesters at Ipperwash Provincial Park, pretending to be working for the fictional United Press Associates.
In British Columbia, RCMP officers posed as a CBC crew to lure and recapture an escaped convict, and pretended to be a reporter for the Alaska Highway News while on the hunt for the people behind pipeline explosions in Dawson Creek. A Vancouver police officer pretended to be a reporter for the free daily 24 Hours to trick an anti-Olympics activist to meet at a mall, where he was ultimately arrested.
The whole point of going undercover is for an agent or officer to pretend to be someone they are not – so why should posing as a member of the media be off limits?
It would be hard to imagine cops going undercover as members of parliament or as the prime minister. If the third estate does not impersonate the second or the first, they shouldn't feel free to pose as members of the fourth estate either.
The work journalists do is based on trust, and we have to be able to safely and legitimately claim to be doing our work in good faith. When others pose as us – even with the best of intentions – trust in our work and our identity is undermined.
Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson, David Rohde of The Christian Science Monitor and the late Bob Simon of CBS News were all captured and accused of being spies while reporting. Iran has arrested a number of journalists, wrongly accusing them of being spies. Freelance reporter James Foley was suspected of working for MI6, and Daniel Pearl was accused of working for the CIA, before both men were beheaded by terrorists. When police and spies pose as journalists, they give these spurious suspicions some legitimacy.
I have had sources afraid to speak with me, fearing I may be CIA. The first time it happened, I laughed at the absurdity of the accusation, but then I learned that the CIA did pose agents as journalists for many years, and even recruited reporters to feed intelligence to the agency. It wasn't until 1976 that this practice by the CIA became outlawed.
In Canada, the practice is not explicitly forbidden, and the case before the Ontario Superior Court was testing the legality of police posing as reporters. Ultimately, the judge dismissed the Charter challenge, claiming the isolated incidents do not constitute a regular practice that warranted blanket curtailment.
In the case of the RCMP's Project SLYPE, which led to the capture of one of Ms. Lindhout's alleged kidnappers, the situation is even more complex. Agents were not posing as journalists per se, but were pretending to be making a lucrative deal for a book by the kidnapper. Literary agents and publishers may not be on the front lines of reporting, meeting with sources and risking their lives in the field, but they are nevertheless members of the fourth estate.
While I celebrate along with my media colleagues that someone who is accused of hurting one of our own is being brought to justice, I can't help worry that the methods used to achieve justice may be a slippery slope – one that could lead to journalists coming into harm's way in the future.