Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Courtroom Secrecy Is under Fire in Canada ; the Canadian Supreme Court Is Considering Whether Media Bans Go Too Far

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Courtroom Secrecy Is under Fire in Canada ; the Canadian Supreme Court Is Considering Whether Media Bans Go Too Far

Article excerpt

When Clayton Mentuck confessed not once, but five times on videotape to a 1996 murder in Manitoba, Canada, it seemed certain he would spend much of his life behind bars.

But then the unexpected happened. The trial judge acquitted Mr. Mentuck, ruling that the police obtained the confessions using "positively overwhelming" inducements. But the public was never to hear the details of this confession - or the police methods in extracting it - because the judge had issued a ban on media coverage of most of the trial. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police had requested the ban, saying it needed to protect the undercover methods its operatives used to gain the confession.

Canada's longstanding practice of protecting certain parties in court cases is coming under fire from media - and even being rendered obsolete by advancing technologies.

Canada's Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the Mentuck case over whether the publication bans go too far, as media representatives allege.

Nick Hirst, editor of the Winnipeg Free Press - one of the papers leading the fight against the publication ban - says the public is growing skeptical of official secrecy. "What this case is really all about is a change in previous presumptions about the courts and the police - the idea that what the police and the courts do for you is always good," he says. "This is a societal change in Canada."

If the Supreme Court sides with the media, it could significantly alter the balance between the right of police to protect their secrets and the public's right to know about them.

Parallel cases show paradox

While most Canadian trials are open to the public, the proceedings of many trials may be banned from publication. (In the US, all proceedings are open to the media except testimony given in Grand Jury hearings. Publication bans are issued rarely, such as when a judge enacts a ban to protect an underage victim of sexual assault, or if national secrets are endangered.) In some cases, the bans are part of the statutes of the federal or provincial legal systems - for instance, in the case of a young offender in Canada (under the age of 16), the media may not identify the youth without permission of the judge.

The publication ban in the Mentuck case was not provided for by statute.

But even while the Canadian Supreme Court is deliberating on the Mentuck case, a court case in the US involving a Canadian police operation illustrates the growing paradox of trying to keep court proceedings secret in an age when technology allows media to publish across physical borders instantly.

In Washington State, Atif Rafey and Sebastien Burns will be tried for the murder of Rafey's family seven years ago. …

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