A Victory for Press Freedom

On the cold winter morning of Jan. 21, 2004, RCMP raided the home and office of Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O'Neill. The police searched through her personal belongings and work place for hours, seizing notebooks, contact lists, date books, tapes, and copies of her computer hard drives. They pressed her to name a source cited in a feature she wrote about the case of Maher Arar, a victim of extraordinary rendition.

The RCMP put O'Neill under surveillance and sifted through her street-side garbage bins while preparing their application for search warrants on grounds of national security. The warrants cited Section 4 of the Security of Information Act, the terrorist-era name for the longstanding, ill-defined Official Secrets Act. The law criminalized communication in such a broad way that it had been condemned many times by champions of civil liberty. O'Neill was told she would be charged under the act, which carries a maximum 14-year prison term.

Defending Press Freedom

The events left many Canadians reeling. Paul Martin, then prime minister of Canada, found himself denying that Canada was a police state and stating that Juliet O'Neill "is clearly not a criminal." Scott Anderson, then Ottawa Citizen Editor, declared it "a black day" for freedom in Canada. Concerned citizens, media organizations, politicians, and journalist organizations around the world condemned the raids. American musician Rick Kendrick recorded a protest song. "The ability of a reporter to protect his or her sources is at the core of a free and democratic society," said Chris Waddell of PEN Canada.

The Ottawa Citizen and parent company Canwest Global Communications Corp. immediately launched a court challenge of the search warrants and Section 4 of the Security of Information Act on grounds they violated freedom of the press and other basic rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Canadian constitution. Lawyers Richard Dearden, Wendy Wagner and David Pacciocco successfully argued the case over the following two years and nine months.

Landmark Court Ruling

The RCMP was denied access to the seized material until a judge ruled on the quest to uphold freedom of the press. In a landmark ruling on Oct. 19, 2006, Ontario Superior Court Justice Lynn Ratushny struck down Section 4 of the Security of Information Act as unconstitutional on grounds it violated Charter rights to freedom of the press. She ruled the RCMP had engaged in "abusive conduct" by intimidating O'Neill with the threat of criminal prosecution. She ordered the return of O'Neill's notebooks and other tools of her trade.

Canadian Journalists For Free Expression welcomed the ruling as a major victory for press freedom in Canada. Said CJFE board member Bob Carty of CBC: "It seems that increasingly the courts are recognizing that to have a healthy media, and thus a vigorous democracy, governments must respect the rights of journalists to protect their sources."


Justice Lynn Ratushny's ruling on Juliet O'Neill v Canada (Attorney General )