PHOTO: Nothing to see here, people, please move along …
It should be pretty clear by now that Canada’s legal mechanisms to protect victims of crimes and the rights of accused persons haven’t kept up with the digital era in which we live.
In case you’re part of the tiny minority of Albertans who have missed this, it’s been made crystal clear by the recent case of a well-known political figure apparently charged with a serious crime that has aroused strong public interest among politically alert Albertans.
I think I’ll just not bother to name the individual since it’s completely unclear at this moment whether that’s allowed or not – plus, because absolutely anybody in Alberta who is halfway alert knows who the politician is and what he’s been charged with anyway.
This is principally because all media reported on the situation before a court publication ban was either ordered or discovered – for reasons technically unknown though widely speculated upon because no one except the media who responded to it know what it says, and maybe not even some of them.
Once media operations became aware of the situation, most pulled their stories, at least for a spell.
A few reported limited facts in a way that may or may not have been permitted by the ban that no one has had the opportunity to read or hear. And the author of one subscription-only legislative newssheet told pretty much the whole story on the not unreasonable grounds that his publication went to press before anyone was aware of the ban.
Unfortunately, for the judge or whoever it was that issued the order, no one in the legal system seems to have figured out, as almost any conscious person familiar with this thing called the Internet understands, that once something has been posted there, its footprints tend to remain, even if it is pulled down again.
For example, if you use a common Internet search engine seek out the name of the politician – although you won’t hear it here – you can see summaries of the story that tell you all the essential facts you’re not supposed to know.
And you know what? The people who run Google live in a different country with a different set of laws, and they don’t really care if an agent of the Government of Canada has said we’re allowed to know something or not.
Now, publication bans exist for good reason, and protecting due process, the safety and sanity of crime victims, and the rights of the accused are all laudable goals. The government of Canada has a good web page that clearly explains the thinking behind publication bans in criminal cases.
But unfortunately – or fortunately, I suppose, depending on your point of view – the process described on that page for achieving these worthwhile goals has been made completely obsolete by the speed of the Internet, the enormous number of people who have the ability to publish things on it, and the stubborn permanence of material once it’s been published there.
Furthermore, in a case where a high-profile public figure actively engaged in political life is involved, there is a strong public interest bordering on necessity in publishing the identity of the accused person, the nature of the charges, and the time frame the alleged offences are said to have taken place.
The time frame is important because members of the voting public in a democracy have a legitimate interest in knowing whether or not the political party represented by the accused person knew about the situation before charges were laid, or the case after charges were laid, and whether it could have done anything about it.
When information is being suppressed – no matter how sensible the reasons or honourable the goals of the censors – voters will understandably become concerned that the situation may be being manipulated for political gain. This is particularly so in an era when the rights of accused persons – at least, those who are not public office holders – are treated with such contempt by the media and many politicians.
So the situation we have now as a result of the conflict of ineffective laws with technical advances in communications technology is one in which none of the interests of the alleged accused, the alleged victim, or our democracy are being served.
Indeed, the opposite is the case. They are all being hurt by the inability of the public to know the answers they need to discuss the political and policy sides of this sad situation.
The only interest that is being protected is that of the political party with which the politician in question is associated, and even that not well.
The laws of Canada in this matter assume that right now, outside your computer, its about 1970. And you know what? It’s not!
This needs to be addressed in a timely fashion by lawmakers. And timely doesn’t mean some time in the next decade or two.