Quebec courts shutting up journalists

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As of April 15, the Quebec court system will be taking a significant step back in upholding transparency by forbidding anyone sitting in a courtroom from sending tweets and emails unless otherwise allowed by a judge. The new guidelines, which were issued on March 28 by Associate Chief Justice Robert Pidgeon, state that the new rules are being put in place in order to "ensure respect for the decorum, good order and the proper course of a [court] audience."

As I noted in a brief story I wrote for CBC Montreal on March 30, lawyers and journalists will be able to keep their devices on vibrate or silent unless a judge demands they be shut off. The devices can only be used to consult documents.

In a story written by Olivier Parent for French daily newspaper La Presse, Pidgeon is quoted saying there have been issues with journalists live-tweeting court procedures during the last year.

According to Pidgeon, some members of the media covering former Judge Jacques Delisle's highly scrutinized appeal trial were caught sending photos from within the confines of the courtroom. He did, however, say the Superior Court's decision is not directly related to Delisle's trial, as journalists were given permission to live-tweet the proceedings.

Apply the rules but don't ban reporting

New technological developments allow us to publish virtually anything we want from wherever we may be. Sure, some institutions (like the courts) have established laws and rules limiting the selection of content that can be made publicly available.

Granted, live-tweeting courtroom proceedings can be tricky. Publication bans and ethical matters can arise at any time and challenge a journalist's coverage. However, any smart reporter knows what should and shouldn't be made public – at least I hope.

The Canadian Supreme Court grants journalists the right to tweet so long as their devices don't make noise.

The fact that the Quebec Superior Court is about to forbid journalists from sending out information will have a direct effect on accountability and transparency in the court system.

In an interview with CBC News, Brian Myles, the president of the Quebec Association of Journalists, said the Quebec court system is actively trying to muzzle journalists.

"Twitter was allowing us to be present in the courtroom and to inform our readers of the events and the witnesses and the testimony that were going on. Basically, [...] you're saying to the reporters 'Yes, you have to be there, we value freedom of the press, but could you please shut up,'" he told CBC News.

Sure, not everyone will tweet responsibly, but putting a muzzle on reporters still won't change the outcome of their coverage – so why not let them take advantage of the technological advances that are becoming the norm in most newsrooms around the globe?

LINK | Policies on live, text-based communications from the courtroom (2012)

Seeking openness

According to the Canadian Centre for Court Technology, most courts in Canada do not have policies specific to live, text-based communications from the courtroom though guidelines regarding the use of wireless devices have been implemented in most courts.

A working group made up of  several officials proposed a national guideline for the use of social media in court in 2012. The group said the guidelines were "founded on the 'open courts' principle, which requires transparency and accountability in the judicial system to foster public confidence in the administration of justice."

The proposed guidelines are simple: live text-based communications should be permissible in all courtrooms so long as the information can be made public and is under no publication ban.

In an opinion piece published in the Toronto Star on Feb. 16, 2012, Ontario lawyer Amy Salyzyn makes a point to note that public access to the justice system holds it accountable for its actions.

Salyzyn discusses Canada's archaic approach to media coverage of court procedures and decries rules forbidding the broadcast of contents heard in courtrooms (though some exceptions apply).

"Canada’s approach to media coverage of court proceedings is out-of-step and the Canadian public has much to lose if we don’t catch up...

The absence of cameras from courtrooms does not prevent journalists from reporting on the testimony and giving a detailed account of who said what in court. Given this flexibility, might advocates of television coverage of court proceedings be accused of splitting hairs? Why do journalists need to broadcast testimony if they can print the same testimony word-for-word?

For one, seeing or hearing something isn’t the same as reading it. Visual cues, sound and tone of voice matters, as anyone who has been on the sending or receiving end of a misinterpreted email can attest.

Moreover, privileging print media fails to recognize the realities of modern journalism. The Canadian public no longer relies on the printed word as a primary source of news. Electronic forms of media, including television and webcasts, are now the dominant source of information for most of us. Allowing the broadcast of video and audio from court proceedings greatly enhances the journalistic coverage of court proceedings in electronic media forms," she wrote.

Salyzyn is right.

The Canadian court system seems to be deliberately shutting out citizens. Is it by fear of retribution or criticism? Perhaps. But one thing's certain: these rules won't change unless people agree to demand the judicial system be held accountable for its actions and join the 21st century by openings its proceedings to the public.

Information will make its way out on the 6 p.m. broadcast or in the morning's paper – what will forbidding tweets do? How would tweeting journalists disrupt court proceedings any more than the ones who use their wireless devices to take notes?

What do you think? Comment below!