OTTAWA — Canadian media's attempt to establish a right to protect confidential sources was quashed by the nation's highest court on Friday.
In an 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court ordered the National Post daily to hand over to police documents obtained from a source in 2001 alleging a former prime minister's involvement in a loan scandal.
The court recognized the public's interest "in being informed about matters of public importance that may only see the light of day through the cooperation of sources who will not speak except on condition of confidentiality."
Canada's judiciary was urged to respect promises of confidentiality given to a secret source by a journalist or an editor "in appropriate circumstances."
But the public's interest "is not absolute," the court ruled. "It must be balanced against other important public interests, including the investigation of crime.
"The bottom line is that no journalist can give a source a total assurance of confidentiality. All such arrangements necessarily carry an element of risk that the source's identity will eventually be revealed," it said.
The leaked documents appeared to expose then-prime minister Jean Chretien's role in loans made to a country inn and golf course in his hometown of Shawinigan, Quebec.
The documents, provided in exchange for a broad and unconditional promise of confidentiality, allegedly showed that the owner of the golf club owed money to Chretien and planned to repay it with a loan from a federally funded bank.
But the bank complained to federal police about what it called an attempt to commit forgery and dupe the Post into publishing a story implicating a former prime minister of serious financial conflicts of interest.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police asked for the documents and the envelope containing them as evidence of the alleged forgery in order to determine the sender's identity.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court also said that a constitutional protection of freedom of expression is not limited to "traditional media" but is enjoyed by "everyone."
The rights extend to blogging, tweeting, "standing on a street corner and shouting the 'news' at passing pedestrians," as well as publishing in a national newspaper, the court said.
But granting immunity to sources deemed worthy to quote on condition of anonymity by "such a heterogeneous and ill-defined group of writers and speakers... would blow a giant hole in law enforcement and other constitutionally recognized values such as privacy," it added.