Courage Under Fire (?)

Forget the asphalt plant, a real standoff is taking place in Squamish, between the District and a lone journalist who’s being threatened with a lawsuit over a damning story that pillories the local government for cutting a firefighter’s position despite being recommended to do otherwise.

The story, published on The Squamish Reporter by Gagandeep Ghuman, a freelance writer and Ryerson graduate who now runs an online news site in the community just south of Whistler, concerns a confidential report received by the District of Squamish in 2006 regarding personnel at the local fire department. It recommended that the District add another full-time firefighter:

“The Squamish Fire Department is 82 per cent deficient with regard to available fire forces, the most significant deficiency within the fire insurance grading…”

But the District, acting on the advice of former Chief Administrative Officer Kim Anema, thought otherwise. In May 2009 the District council voted to eliminate a position, leaving it with the same level of personnel it had in 1992, despite a population that’s grown since then.

Now Ghuman is facing the threat of lawsuit from Kevin Ramsay, the new CAO:

“You have quoted from a study that is not public and has never been released to the public. We demand that you reveal how you received this confidential document so we can take legal action against this person.”

Before I say anything else, Ghuman deserves our respect. For a reporter to develop such a deep trust in someone important enough to hold that information is both admirable and humbling. I don’t know who gave him the report but the fact he got it should be a testament to his skill in building relationships with sources. As a reporter running his own publication he rocked the community with a single story, of the kind that many reporters won’t touch in their careers. The story is worthy of an investigative journalism award.

Legally, however, I fear that Ghuman may not have much of a case.

While Canada’s courts have lately been very generous in protecting free speech for journalists, they’ve been less charitable when it comes to protection for whistleblowers and confidential sources.

You’ll recall R v. National Post, a fairly recent case that went to the Supreme Court of Canada. Justice Ian Binnie wrote in that decision that courts should strive to protect the media’s secret sources in cases where the protection is in the public interest.

But it put forth a major caveat: media do not have an absolute right to protect their sources. Binnie said it straight up:

“The bottom line is that no journalist can give a source a total assurance of confidentiality.”

It’s a dangerous decision. It affirms that media have only a very limited right to protect the people who give them information that public officials have tried to hold back.

In so deciding, Binnie ordered that the National Post turn over to the police a document that formed the nub of the “Shawinigate” scandal, that briefly tarnished the reputation of Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Recall also the case of Ken Peters, a journalist with the Hamilton Spectator who used confidential documents to tell a story about abuses in a nursing home. The home slapped the City of Hamilton with a $15.5 million defamation suit and Peters was called to testify. He refused to name his source and, though the judge called him an “honourable man” for protecting it, he was charged with contempt and hit with a $31,600 fine that was later overturned by the Ontario Court of Appeals.

Now to Gagandeep’s case. I’m no lawyer, much less a legal expert, but I believe there is an enormous public interest in learning whether a local government is taking appropriate steps to protect its people against fire danger. Gagandeep’s story came months after a major fire destroyed an apartment complex just before Christmas 2009. The public certainly deserves to know whether it’s being adequately protected.

But the real question is whether a court will feel the same way. It’s up to a judge to decide whether what Gagandeep reported is in the public interest. To find that out he may be forced to spend thousands of dollars to defend his case in court. And he may end up doing all this whilst defending himself against a lawsuit from a government with deeper pockets than he has.

That last part’s not totally fair. I don’t know how much money Gagandeep has. I just hope he has plenty because he may need it if he hopes to convince the courts he did the right thing.

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About jesseferreras

Sea to Sky-based journalist. Snowboarder, cyclist, cinephile, bon vivant.
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