This Is How the Free Press Dies
Former Motherboard editor Ben Makuch has been pursued by the Canadian government since 2014 for doing his job.
Image: Taylor Beldy
For nearly three years, our colleague and friend Ben Makuch has had the full weight of Canada's intelligence agencies, federal government, and court systems bearing down on him for the crime of committing journalism.
While the Canadian editor of Motherboard, Ben interviewed Farah Mohamed Shirdon, who joined ISIS and burnt his Canadian passport on YouTube in 2014. The interview provided an early look at the motivations of one of a still-growing number of Western-born people who left Canada, the United States, or the United Kingdom to join the Islamic State. It was, by any standard, an insightful piece of reporting that helped our audience understand a mysterious and frightening enemy.
Soon after the articles ran, agents for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police showed up at VICE's Toronto office and demanded that Ben turn over all communications he had with Shirdon (which the Kik messaging service deletes as soon as they are delivered), as well as notes and emails exchanged between Ben, who now is a reporter with VICE News, and Motherboard editorial staff. The request was made under a top-secret gag order; for nine months, Ben couldn't tell his colleagues, family, or friends that the Canadian government intended to turn him into an investigative arm for its top federal police agency.
At every turn of Ben's saga, the RCMP under the Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau administrations have undermined the role of a free press in a democratic society. Ben's case is unique, even compared to other instances where governments have interfered with the journalistic process in an attempt to reveal the identity of an anonymous source. In his reporting, Ben both identified his source and quoted him extensively; the RCMP has already gotten a wealth of information about Shirdon simply because Ben published his work on Motherboard.
Ben and VICE Media have refused to turn over full transcripts of his communications. To do so would undermine our journalists' credibility with the sources we regularly use to do our jobs, as well as put the safety of our sources and journalists at risk. It is appalling to see the Canadian government engage in a misguided fishing expedition masquerading as an essential fight in the War on Terror. The Canadian government is attempting to make Ben—a journalist who often reports on the ground from war-torn nations—serve as a de-facto spy against ISIS, which has a long history of brutally murdering journalists.
To be clear, the Canadian government continues to pursue Ben for doing his job. Last month, an appeals court ruled that he must turn over his chats to the RCMP. VICE Media and Ben have vowed to appeal the decision to Canada's Supreme Court.
The investigation has already had a demonstrable effect on Ben's ability to do his job. His sources are more skittish because of the perception that journalists could be used as government agents: "Shirdon would have never spoken to me if he thought I was a cop or a spy," he said.
This attempt to use journalists as an investigative arm of the government and an at-will extension of its intelligence agencies is diametrically opposed to the principles of an open and free society. The fervor with which the government has pursued Ben's communications is unconscionable.
While Ben's case has been widely covered in Canada, it has flown under the radar of the Trump-obsessed American press. But what happened with Ben is part of a global trend to prevent the free spread of information by governments that espouse democratic values and supposedly champion an open society.
Strategies for mass surveillance and thwarting encryption have already expanded bit by bit across the so-called Five Eyes nations. Now, considering each of those governments has shown increasing antagonism toward free and open journalism, Ben's case stands as a warning for what's to come.
Trudeau has won praise in the US for his rhetoric that positions Canada as a global model of progressive democracy as the rest of the world heads toward conservative nationalism. It's ironic, then, that despite Donald Trump's saber rattling, the First Amendment and an imperfect patchwork of state shield laws have conferred greater protection to journalists in the US than a so-called progressive leader in Canada has.
Americans should not take these protections to be absolute, however. When both sides of the aisle agree that press freedom is not a guaranteed right, journalists and the public they inform will suffer. The broad subpoena powers given to the federal government in cases involving national security means that governments are rarely punished for testing the limits of their power.
Barack Obama's administration charged more whistleblowers with violating the Espionage Act than any other administration in history. Meanwhile, Obama's Department of Justice secretly spied on Associated Press reporters while simultaneously whining about encryption and internet privacy as major barriers to national security.
New York Times journalist Judith Miller was jailed for 85 days by the George W. Bush administration for refusing to cooperate with a Department of Justice investigation into CIA leakers, and her colleague, James Risen, fought a seven year legal battle with the Bush and Obama administrations to avoid having to disclose a source. Their cases show that American reporters can and will be silenced, threatened, and prosecuted if the federal government takes offense to their reporting. Now we have Donald Trump, a president who has declared the media the "enemy of the people" and has no qualms about eroding civil liberties in the name of security, which should frighten anyone who believes that journalists should report in the public interest.
As corporations become increasingly tight-lipped, government scientists are muzzled, and official government statements contain outright lies, reporters have been forced to rely on brave people willing to leak, give context to, and speak about corporate and government malfeasance. Protecting these sources means using encrypted and secure lines of communication, scrubbing metadata from documents, and, most of all, not identifying them to law enforcement or the federal government. Burning a source can result in them being fired, arrested, or put in harm's way. Without that trust, there is no journalism. Case by case, this is how the free press dies.