B.C. Supreme Court considers request to broadcast Meng Wanzhou extradition case

VANCOUVER — A British Columbia Supreme Court judge is weighing whether to allow a media consortium's request to allow video and web broadcasting of the extradition hearings of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on the basis that there's significant public interest in the case.

Daniel Coles, a lawyer who represents 13 domestic and international media outlets including The Canadian Press, told Justice Heather Holmes on Wednesday that broadcasting the proceedings would "engage with the very meaning of open and accessible justice in the modern era."

Lawyers for Meng and the attorney general of Canada are opposing the request. They argue that introducing cameras in the courtroom could compromise the decorum of the courts, witness testimony and Meng's fair trial rights should she be extradited to the United States.

"Should Ms. Meng be surrendered, she would face trial witnesses there who would testify. As a result, broadcasting these proceedings would impact the sanctity of future proceedings," David Martin, one of Meng's defence lawyers, said in court.

Meng, Huawei's chief financial officer, is free on bail and living in one of her homes in Vancouver while awaiting the extradition hearing.

She was detained by border officials at Vancouver's airport last December, then arrested by the RCMP at the request of the United States, which is seeking her extradition on fraud charges.

Meng is fighting the order and has denied any wrongdoing. Her lawyers argue her arrest and detention were unlawful.

The media is proposing two small, discreet, remote controlled cameras similar to security cameras that can be directed at the judge, counsel or witnesses, court documents show.

There would be a two-hour delay in the broadcast, and the court could order the broadcast stopped at any time. Witnesses would also have the opportunity to decline the broadcast of their testimony.

Coles said comments by Canadian, American and Chinese politicians and diplomats show the case has been politicized.

"Depending on what happens in this case, there are political ramifications," Coles said.

The court's public gallery is often full, he said, and many members of the public have an interest in the case but are unable to watch it unfold in the courtroom because they don't live in Vancouver or are tied up with jobs and other obligations.

They range from canola farmers affected by Chinese sanctions to the friends of the families of two Canadians detained by China, decisions widely seen as retaliation against Canada for Meng's arrest.

Broadcasting the proceedings would give them access to the court, unfiltered by a reporter's observations, he said.

In an affidavit, Treena Wood, news director at CBC Vancouver, makes the argument for access.

"The ability to view a live-stream would effectively remove the reporter/broadcaster filter because the viewer's experience would be akin to sitting in a courtroom," the affidavit says.

And in cases where clips are used in news broadcasts, which would inevitably involve editorial selection, viewers would at least be afforded a more direct experience of the court, she says.

A series of hearings in the case is set to begin in January and Coles is requesting authorization for the first one, or portions of it, to be broadcast. He also wants to apply again for access to more hearings next year.

Court rules give discretion to a judge to authorize video recording or broadcasting but do not provide a legal framework for making that decision, Coles said.

But he said the Supreme Court of Canada set out a test for assessing press freedom in judicial proceedings in a case that addressed publication bans, known as Dagenais v. Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Coles argued the Meng case passes the test, because broadcasting proceedings poses no "real and substantial risk" to the administration of justice.

The courts have also demonstrated an interested in increasing accessibility, he said, mentioning a pilot project of the B.C. Court of Appeal to webcast select proceedings.

Martin countered that cameras do pose a risk to justice and prohibiting them does not limit the freedom of the press in any meaningful way.

Journalists are still free to communicate what they observe in court, but witnesses can be affected by knowledge that they are being recorded.

"It's different when there's a camera. They tend to speak to the camera, rather than the court," he said.

Martin also warned of "soundbite culture," and questioned if American broadcasters would be able to adequately communicate the subtleties of legal arguments without sensationalizing them, and falsely labelling Meng guilty.

In written arguments, lawyers for the attorney general say the media consortium has failed to demonstrate that broadcasting court proceedings would enhance the open court principle.

"Given that the extradition proceeding is not a trial on the merits, but a proceeding to determine whether a trial should occur in the requesting state, concerns of the courts regarding the potential distortion of the proceedings are only magnified in this case where there could be unintended consequences that impact upon the trial fairness in the requesting state," the written argument says.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2019.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press