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Two international champions of a free press sent letters to the head of the National Energy Board Friday asking him to protect whistleblowers, not investigate them.

Reporters Without Borders and Canadian Journalists for Freedom of Expression made the request after National Observer’s managing editor Mike De Souza discovered the NEB hired a private investigator to track down one of his sources.

“We are deeply troubled by the report that the National Energy Board (NEB), Canada’s energy regulator, hired a private investigation firm to investigate whether its employees are sharing information with media sources,” says the letter addressed to Calgary-based NEB chairman and chief executive Peter Watson.

“The ongoing investigation will cost the federal government – that is, will cost Canadians – $24,150. While the NEB maintains that they have not spied on journalists as part of the investigation, the regulator’s witch-hunt for whistleblowers remains cause for alarm for the Canadian press and citizens alike.

Whistleblowers need protection

“Whistleblowers are a critical source of public interest information for journalists, particularly in cases of misconduct behind government and corporate doors. For journalists to be able to do their job of holding the powerful to account, whistleblowers must be protected, not threatened by continuous investigation and surveillance.”

De Souza initially asked the NEB for comment after one of its executives joked to staff about tasering environmental protesters during a 2016 meeting in Calgary. The NEB later hired Presidia Security Consulting to find out which employee passed the information to De Souza.

National Observer used access to information legislation to find out the investigation cost $24,150.

The letters are signed by Alice Klein, president of the CJFE and Delphine Halgand, North America director for Reporters Without Borders. They also call on the federal government to improve protection for whistleblowers who speak out about management misconduct.

NEB calls it a security risk

NEB spokesman Craig Loewen declined to comment on Friday, saying he had already spoken on the issue and had nothing to add.

In March, Loewen told National Observer in an email that employees had breached security by communicating with a reporter.

"This activity poses a security risk and is a violation of our organizational and federal Codes of Conduct and Public Service Values," Loewen wrote.

"In addition, the inappropriate sharing of information was damaging and hurtful to many NEB employees who come to work each day in service of Canadians and exemplify integrity and professionalism in their conduct."