Journalistic morals of high value, proves Yukon court


Controversial case sees journalist versus journalist action in a battle for sources

Danielle Pope
CUP Western Bureau Chief

VICTORIA (CUP) — Nancy Thomson can sleep better now, knowing that the Yukon court system has backed her decision not to reveal her confidential sources.

The CBC news reporter in Whitehorse was caught in a battle between journalists these past few months, when Thomson aired a controversial series of reports in an investigative radio series that aired in 2004 about drug and alcohol abuse in Watson Lake, Yukon.

Local paper the Yukon News picked up wind of the criticism Thomson was receiving over the series and flew to her defence for excelling in real investigative journalism. But the heated editorial that editor Richard Mostyn printed, criticizing the critics and calling for more action on the issues at hand, landed the newspaper with a heavy lawsuit from Watson Lake physician Said Secerbegovic, who alleges the paper defamed him.

In an effort to prove the information correct, the Yukon paper asked Thomson to provide evidence of her sources – something she had sworn to keep anonymous to the individual’s interviewed.

“It is very unfortunate that a media outlet is trying to force another journalist to reveal her sources,” Arnold Amber of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression told media before the case was heard. “It’s very difficult to do investigative reports if people fear their identities will be exposed if they blow the whistle on what they believe are wrongdoings. We hope that these important interests will be taken into account in this case.”

To the relief of the organization and journalists everywhere, Thomson was taken to court on March 21, where the Yukon Supreme Court sided with Thomson’s journalistic moral, and allowed her to keep the identities of her subjects undisclosed as agreed by the deal struck over the weekend by lawyers.

“We were able to assist, I think, in identifying ways in which the appropriate facts could be put before the court without having to imperil Nancy Thomson or her sources,” Fred Kozak, president of the Canadian Media Lawyers Association and Thomson’s lawyer, told media outside court.

Thomson had spoken with 11 sources for her report on Watson Lake, a town of about 1,500 in southern Yukon. The report revealed that claims for Tylenol 3 and Ativan in the community had more than doubled and tripled respectively between 2002 and 2003. Thomson also reported at the time that Watson Lake's sole doctor was also the town’s only pharmacist.

“It's very good,” Thomson said outside court after the agreement was reached. “I mean, I would be hard-pressed to do my job at all if I was not able to protect sources.”

Yukon News lawyer David Sutherland was not available for comment after the court results, though he had previously expressed his desire not to argue the case in the media.

He did add, however, that Thomson had been nothing but supportive with assisting in the newspaper’s case – with everything other than disclosing her sources, of course.

“The information requested [had] to be relevant in order to be ordered revealed, but, in our view … it’s so readily apparent and notorious that it’s not worth challenging a constitutionally protected right – freedom of expression – to get it,” said Kozak.     “We’re not talking about secrets here, but it was information given to Ms. Thomson by people who said, ‘My story is important but I don’t want to be revealed because my reputation in this small community is on the hook.’ And they only gave her that info after she promised confidentiality.”

Now, the Yukon News will have to pay the CBC’s legal fees associated with the case, according to the agreement. The paper will await its own court case, slated for May of this year.

“This case is a first of a kind that I’ve seen between two news outlets,” said Kozak. “There is an assumed confidentiality between a journalist and her sources, and that helps society … but this is a peculiar situation. You have to assess whether the injury that would arise from a source being revealed is greater than the benefit from forcing a reporter to reveal, and what harm could come to that relationship and the future ability of said reporter to do her job.”

Kozak emphasizes his support for the Yukon News’ case, and adds that this portion of the case isn’t about right or wrong – it’s about the principals the whole way around.

“We’re not thinking about this case in terms of which side could be helped or hurt in the eventual outcome, but we’re looking it as a matter of principal, and how it would look if people saw that we, as journalists, don’t keep promises – that hurts everyone’s ability to do this job,” Kozak said. “It’s not about good guys or bad guys, it’s about all of us protecting our sources.”

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