Newspaper orders CBC to reveal sources

In a unique case for media law, Fred Kozak, president of the Canadian
Media Lawyers Association, will defend a CBC reporter’s
journalist-source privilege — against another media outlet.

This story began in 2004, when CBC reporter Nancy Thomson interviewed residents of the Yukon’s Watson Lake for a series about drug and alcohol abuse in the small town.

She had obtained federal documents that revealed claims for Tylenol 3 and Ativan had more than tripled between 2002 and 2003. Her high profile story enraged at least two Watsonians, Maclean’s reports.

Said Secerbegovic, a Watson Lake physician that also owns the community’s only private pharmacy, dubbed the reporter a “National Enquirer journalist” while Yukon Premier and Watson Lake MLA Dennie Fentie walked out of the CBC studio mid-interview.

The Yukon News wrote an editorial criticizing these outbursts, calling Thomson’s report as “a masterful bit of journalism” and an important public service. Maclean’s writes that the editorial  “also noted that Fentie’s wife worked for Secerbegovic, and the doctor had a contract to buy property from Fentie.”

Secerbegovic launched a lawsuit in 2005, but not against the CBC — rather, he is suing The Yukon News, alleging that its editorial “implied he benefited financially by over-prescribing medication and that he was ‘the cause of or related to the death of two men, a domestic assault, and an alleged person being charged with second-degree murder,'” Maclean’s reports. 

The Yukon News says that in order to evoke Canada’s new “responsible communication” defence, it needs Thomson’s “notes and records, tapes of her interviews, and a tape of the CBC broadcasts.” The Whitehorse Daily Star reports that the paper is also requesting CBC pay the cost of court action.

Thomson refuses to hand over the identities of her sources, which she says would destroy her credibility and ability to work in the community, and that of other journalists as well. “These sources feared retribution, embarrassment and further marginalization and ostracism if they were identified,” she told the Daily Star. She says she interviewed “dozens” of people in the town of 1,600 people.

Kozak says he will “vigorously defend” Thomson, suggesting that the Supreme Court ruling on the Globe and Mail reporter Daniel Leblanc case will work in their favour. In that case, Maclean’s reports, “Canada’s highest court maintained that journalist-source privilege must still be determined on a case-by-case basis, but it instructed lower courts that privilege should be denied only when all other avenues have been exhausted, and the identities of sources are essential in the quest for justice.”

“People say, ‘why don’t you release the information?’ ” Kozak told Maclean’s. “But the media don’t take sides, and that golden rule doesn’t change just because one of the sides is another media outlet.”