Borderless blogs vs. Canada press ban

A Canadian publication ban and an American blogger clashed last week. The court-ordered ban did not survive the impact. The blogger was overwhelmed with visitors.

And what had been Canada's own private scandal - so private Canadians had been prevented from hearing about it in full - fast traveled the borderless blogosphere.

Publication bans prevent anyone from publishing or broadcasting evidence given or motions made during the course of a trial. Publication bans are not common in Canada, but when imposed they are meant to ensure that a jury pool, or a sitting jury, is not tainted. (One can be forgiven for wondering what the point of jury selection is, if a judge can't feel confident those selected are unable to look solely at evidence presented.) In this instance, however, the ban was imposed on a public inquiry into possible government fraud and conspiracy, involving taxpayer dollars. The word "counterintuitive" comes to mind.

"Adscam" has been making headlines in Canada for nearly two years. It involves an attempt by the federal government - under former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and the Liberal Party - to "sell Canada" in Quebec, a province that has twice held (unsuccessful) referendums on the question of independence. Advertising agencies in Quebec were hired - at a cost of more than $200 million (US) - to promote federalism. But allegations surfaced that $81 million of those funds had been funneled back to Liberal Party loyalists. Paul Martin, shortly after becoming prime minister in late 2003, set up an inquiry headed by Justice John Gomery.

On March 29, Justice Gomery issued a publication ban on the testimony of three witnesses. This was done, he said, in order to assure the witnesses receive fair treatment when they face a criminal trial - relating to Adscam - later this year. In his ruling, Gomery stated that the ban included the Internet. With testimony under lock, everyone wondered about its relative explosiveness. A suggestion that the Liberal Party would be forced to call an election due to the hidden information made the rounds - causing Canadians to envision the absurd scenario that we would go to the polls based in part on something we weren't allowed to hear, or talk about.

Enter American blogger Ed Morrissey, or Captain Ed, to his readers. On April 2, in his Captain's Quarters blog, he posted some of the testimony. In the following days, Mr. Morrissey posted more, telling readers that some of the revelations came from a single source, some were corroborated by a second.

It didn't take long for a Canadian site, NealeNews, to link to the captain, though without printing any of the testimony. Still, officials at the Gomery Inquiry said they were considering citing the owner of NealeNews with contempt. American bloggers - including Michelle Malkin and Instapundit - picked up the story. Any Canadian with access to a computer could get the dirt. Morrissey wrote that his blog had been "swarmed with tens of thousands" of hits. He kindly warned Canadian visitors that they may "receive a summons" from their government.

Where a publication ban used to be fairly simple to understand, if not necessarily approve, new questions were being asked. Questions like: If I link to a site with a link to Captain's Quarters, will the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) show up at my house? Or, if I already had a link to Captain's Quarters before it carried the testimony, do I now have to remove it? Are the RCMP going to hire an army of new staff to hunt for untoward links?

A friend sent me an e-mail with the subject line, "The man on the ship," deferring jokingly (I assumed) to the publication ban, by referring to Captain Ed in code.

Canadian networks and newspapers found themselves tiptoeing through this new minefield, trying to report about the blog without mentioning blog names or web addresses. One television network removed a story that contained the blog's name from their website. The Globe and Mail mentioned Morrissey, but not his blog, by name. While some Canadian bloggers defied the ban, mainstream media appeared to lack similar moxie. Coming days after details of the rape, torture, and murder of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi were revealed (she was arrested and murdered in Iran in 2003, for taking photographs of a demonstration), such gyrations seemed feeble.

One Canadian blogger who linked to Captain's Quarters, Angry in the Great White North, says he did so because he does not want his children growing up in a country "where public testimony can be known by government officials and by the media, but by no one else." And Gomery reacted as well, lifting most of the ban last Thursday. Some testimony is still muzzled ... but not for American bloggers or Canadians who can Google, if sources keep talking.

Gomery said he lifted the ban because "it is in the public interest that this evidence with few exceptions be made available to the public." But it is hard to believe the blogosphere didn't play a powerful role in bringing about his epiphany.

The Internet has perhaps rendered publication bans futile. Whether that is a good thing can be debated. Freedom should not be mistaken for license. But given the level of alleged corruption exposed by the secret testimony, first at Captain's Quarters, and now all over mainstream Canadian media, it is difficult to argue that Canadians shouldn't be grateful for this clash of the blog and the ban.

Rondi Adamson is a Canadian writer.

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