Keyboard Commando – Reporters dealing with suspected terrorists is a doubled-edged sword

Mac Olsen
As a reporter, I am all for freedom of the press, given the nature of my work.

But I am very wary of any reporter venturing into the underworld to deal with suspected or actual criminals, terrorists and others who are threats to personal and public safety.

According to a Canadian News Wire news release from January 31, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), along with a coalition of media, labour and non-governmental organizations, planned to hold a rally in Toronto on February 6 for a reporter, Ben Makuch. That’s the day he was to appear in court.

Makuch is fighting a court order to turn over his chat logs between himself and a suspected ISIS fighter, to the police.

“Ben Makuch is making a brave stand in support of press freedom, and we are standing with him,” said Tom Henheffer, CJFE Executive Director.
“Journalists are not a law enforcement arm for the government and to be treated as such by the judiciary is a massive threat to their independence.
If police can make demands for journalists’ notes, then sources won’t talk, and public interest stories like Makuch’s won’t be told in the first place, leaving the public in the dark.”

The news release also says CJFE is also calling on the Canadian government to support Private Member’s Bill S-231 which would create a federal press shield law and strengthen protection for advocates, whistleblowers and journalists.

Sorry CJFE, but I can’t agree with you or Makuch on this one. I think Makuch has taken a dangerous course of action in having contact of any kind with a suspected terrorist.

I will address the issue of freedom of the press first. Yes, the media should not engage in a quid pro quo relationship with the police. That would destroy the public’s trust in a free press.

Never would I willingly turn over any of my materials to the police. They would have to get a court order, and even then I would exhaust all avenues of appeal before doing so.

At the same, it’s important for reporters to have a rapport with the police in some ways. For instance, I post the RCMP news releases on our Facebook page and for things like missing people, suspects and criminals wanted by the police, break-and-enter investigations and motor vehicle collisions.

That’s where the media and the police should work together, for the public good.

And yes, investigative journalism has a role. I have no problem with exposing a “slum lord” who refuses to make repairs to their buildings. It’s not right that tenants have to live in unhealthy living conditions.

Nor do I have a problem with exposing an individual or company trying to cover up a pollution problem of their making, which has consequences for personal health and/or the environment. Those are also the kinds of issues reporters should deal with, for the public good.

But venturing into the dark underworld is entirely different.

I cannot condone what Ben Makuch has done. The very idea of having direct and/or indirect communication with a suspected terrorist is immoral and dangerous.

Those involved in terrorism, narcotics trafficking, human smuggling or other criminal activity are to be shunned, including those deemed to be “sources” or “confidential informants.”

A reporter can never know with absolute certainty that “sources” or “confidential informants” – especially when it comes to terrorism – aren’t fake and false.

They could be there to provide false information. And if the reporter goes with that as a story, then their credibility could very well be destroyed. Not to mention the damage to the media organization they work for.

Moreover, if that reporter pursues such information with aggression, they are putting their own personal safety in jeopardy.

Additionally, if a reporter possesses information that puts public security at risk, and something terrible happens like 911, then that is on their conscience.

And just the very nature of terrorism should put caution into a reporter’s sensibilities. I would never allow myself to become a propaganda tool for a a lone wolf or a terrorist organization’s agenda.

Even if Makuch’s “source” is legitimate and is putting himself or herself at great risk in having contact with him, that doesn’t make it right for Makuch to pursue it.

That is what the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is for – to analyze and confirm threats as they arise, and pass them along to the proper authorities. Makuch’s “source” should be dealing directly with CSIS and not him.

And while we’re on the subject of disclosing sensitive information, any reporter who engages in Edward Snowden-like disclosure is guilty of espionage and spying. Such people must be brought to justice and imprisoned for this crime.

I do not condone what Snowden did, nor will I ever access Wikileaks myself. He and that site are immoral and should be ostracized the world over.

Fellow reporters can condemn me for my positions, and argue that people like Makuch’s “source” won’t come forward and provide information.

They can even say that government and institutional cover-ups have to be exposed publicly through whistle-blower protections.

But I say, better safe than sorry. And we have freedom of information laws to aid us, too.

If Makuch’s case goes to the Supreme Court of Canada under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and he loses, then he should unconditionally turn over his information to the police. Or go to jail for refusal.

Freedom of the press isn’t absolute.

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