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Allison Hanes: Chamberland Commission must tackle culture of secrecy

Allison Hanes: Chamberland Commission must tackle culture of secrecy
Allison Hanes: Chamberland Commission must tackle culture of secrecy

La Presse revealed last year that Montreal police had tracked journalist Patrick Lagacé's cellphone calls and text messages during an internal police investigation. Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette

The Chamberland Commission on the protection of journalists’ confidential sources will not lack for constructive proposals to consider when it retires over the coming months to draft its final report.

This week, the inquiry struck last fall to probe explosive revelations of police spying on journalists has been hearing recommendations from the various participants on how to reconcile the often competing and conflictual roles of the free press, police and the judiciary in a democratic society.

These include: more training for police and justices of the peace about the jurisprudence that is supposed to protect journalists from intrusive surveillance; putting more rigorous protocols in place for police seeking warrants against reporters; building a stronger firewall between police chiefs and their political masters; and creating a separate body to investigate police suspected of crimes.

Where the Chamberland Commission will have its work cut out for it, however, is in changing attitudes.

Read through the memoires that have been filed with the inquiry and the deeply entrenched — and often diametrically opposed — schools of thought when it comes to the watchdog role of the press become apparent.

Montreal Police see almost any information about an investigation or internal matters divulged in the media that doesn’t come from a specially trained communications specialist as a leak that constitutes a possible disciplinary matter or even a potential crime. No wonder the force is so busy chasing its tail and so riven by internal strife that it is itself currently the subject of an investigation by outside police corps. Clearly, the good old days of officers being able to talk with reporters without violating their oath of confidentiality are long gone, as the Fédération professionelle des journalistes du Québec noted in its brief.

Meanwhile, the Cour du Québec et de la Conférence des juges de la paix magistrats du Québec is still reeling from the perceived tarnishing of its good name by media commentators who called them “rubber stampers” for their quickness to sign off on search warrants against journalists. Apparently, they are above outside criticism. Their brief also dismissed any question about their competence to weigh protections for the media set out by the Supreme Court of Canada if and when police seek to conduct surveillance on reporters.

The FPJQ even wonders aloud about whether the “animosity” toward the media voiced publicly by certain members of the bench is an indication of inherent bias against journalists and for police in such circumstances.

Indeed, if there is a certain contempt for the fourth estate among those sworn to serve and protect or those charged with upholding the rule of law, it is a symptom of a much bigger problem. Quebec remains mired in a culture of secrecy — and court-authorized police spying on journalists is just the most shocking example.

We see it in the professionalization of public relations, restrictive communications strategies at public bodies, the frequency with which the media must fight publication bans in court or to obtain what should be public documents by default, the ubiquity of access to information requests being denied or delayed, the considerable difficulty of extracting basic information out of government offices, and the ease with which data is classified as private or confidential.

Public institutions — from ministers’ offices to hospitals — seem to treat information as proprietary. They act as if it’s some kind of corporate trade secret, as if citizens have no right to knowledge about how their money is being spent, how their services are being run or how those they elected conduct themselves in office. The lag in response times to questions as messages are massaged into virtual nonsense by armies of flacks, who by some estimates outnumber journalists four to one, adds new challenges to reporting.

One of the first promises Premier Philippe Couillard made as he stood in the lobby of the National Assembly, shortly after winning the 2014 election, was to make Quebec public and para-public institutions more open. Yet those lofty goals to reform access to information laws or adopt “open government” policies seem to have been largely forgotten.

Is this because it’s just too daunting a task? Or does power inevitably turn people secretive?

Quebec is far behind other jurisdictions in many regards. Ontario has its “sunshine list” of public employees who make more than $100,000 a year. Police forces in the U.S release information about investigations, including dash-cam and body-cam footage as a matter of course. Many U.S. court documents are available online and easily obtainable even from a distance. There are fewer hoops to jump through involving surly functionaries charging exorbitant amounts for photocopies. It’s just a click and a credit card purchase away.

All this, of course, is far beyond the mandate of the Chamberland Commission, which was to examine how police practices and possible political interference in law enforcement are thwarting the work of journalists, investigative reporters in particular.

Worse than just disregarding the role of the press in exposing corruption and abuse, earlier testimony demonstrated that journalists’ efforts were compromised on the basis of weak, unsubstantiated, sexist and even fabricated proof. The testimony shows how fundamentally underappreciated public interest journalism is, even to those who should know better.

The stakes are high for the Chamberland Commission’s final report next March. It must propose not only meaningful measures but prompt serious introspection to safeguard the freedom of the press at a time when it has never been more important — or more vulnerable.

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