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Journalist Brandi Morin walks out of the Edmonton Police Service headquarters after having to present herself for processing and fingerprinting in Edmonton, on Jan. 30. Morin was arrested while reporting from an encampment of unhoused Indigenous people, and is facing a charge of obstruction.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Brent Jolly is the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists. Ethan Cox and Andrea Houston are editors with Ricochet Media.

On Jan. 10, Indigenous journalist Brandi Morin was arrested while reporting for Ricochet Media on a homeless encampment in downtown Edmonton. Crown prosecutors are currently deciding whether or not to proceed with obstruction charges.

To do so would be contrary to the public interest and would have a chilling effect on media across the country and, by extension, the democratic system, which relies on journalists as watchdogs.

Ms. Morin has been accused of the distinctly undemocratic crime of bearing witness to a police raid. The Edmonton Police have stated that she was “warned repeatedly” that she had to leave the area or face arrest. This is simply not true. Without incident, she filmed from about 10 feet away, a safe distance, during the discussion between police and the camp residents. After arrests began, footage shows that an officer physically accosted her within seconds of first approaching. Her first hearing will be on Feb. 16.

Journalists need to be near enough to the events they are reporting on to properly understand and document them. They need to hear what is being said, and capture images that tell the story.

Without journalists, all there would be is the police version of events – which isn’t always reliable.

In January, a court heard evidence of police on Wet’suwet’en territory privately joking about how multiple officers piled onto a land defender being arrested to “beat the shit out of him.”

Where were the journalists? Conveniently for police, they were far away, stuck outside a police exclusion zone, purportedly for their own safety.

In recent years, the RCMP, followed by several big-city police forces, have established no-go zones that are sometimes kilometres wide around arrests of non-violent protesters, who are often Indigenous. This broad approach has been condemned by two provincial appeals courts and the RCMP’s civilian complaints commission – but police have not been listening.

Journalist Justin Brake, for instance, was arrested in 2016 when reporting on Indigenous opposition to the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project. That ruling is an oft-cited legal precedent supporting the right of journalists to report. Indigenous journalists Karl Dockstader and Jerome Turner also know this situation all too well, as do dozens of others who have been detained and prevented from getting the story.

For reporters covering Indigenous issues, and especially for Indigenous journalists doing the work of telling their own peoples’ stories, reasonable access to police events is essential and a protected right. Canada’s sidelining of Indigenous issues in news reporting was highlighted as a concern by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and there is a long history of police having troubling interactions with Indigenous peoples.

In 2021, a coalition of seven media outlets led by the Canadian Association of Journalists took the RCMP to court over restrictions on media access at the blockades at Fairy Creek in British Columbia. The coalition won, with the court rebuking RCMP attempts to exclude journalists and ordering them to provide access.

Ms. Morin, therefore, had a well-founded belief that she had a right to report on these arrests. Indeed, seven of the largest international press freedom groups have called for these charges to be dropped.

Police have a job to do – but so do journalists. Ours is the constitutionally protected work of identifying stories to cover, gathering information, documenting events and asking questions on behalf of the public.

Ms. Morin’s recordings show she was doing her job, quietly observing and filming at a safe distance and not obstructing officers.

Comparing that footage with other media recordings is illustrative.

CTV had a camera in the area that police designated for media, more than 50 feet away. That silent footage is grainy and remote.

Ms. Morin’s footage, by contrast, tells a different story, showing camp residents holding up eagle feathers in a gesture of non-violent resistance, up until the point she was arrested.

Journalists are professionals and know to stay out of the way during police engagements. They can make decisions about their own safety. They do it every day, whether in war zones or at peaceful demonstrations.

If an officer chooses to warn a journalist that there may be safety issues, that is welcome – but it’s not the police’s duty to force journalists to conveniently miss the story.

Of course, police would prefer to carry their work out in private, without criticism or accountability. We get that.

But the public interest demands that journalists – as representatives of the public – have access. If this charge against Ms. Morin proceeds, it will be a triumph for the narrow interests of the police, over the broad interests of the public.

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