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Letting authorities arbitrate who is or isn’t a journalist allows police to regulate the press

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Armed police use axes and chainsaws on Nov. 19 to break into a tiny house near Houston, B.C., that had been set up by the Wet'suwet'en Nation's Gidimt’en clan and allies to oppose the Coastal Gaslink pipeline. Photojournalist Amber Bracken documented the arrests before she, too, was taken away.Photography by Amber Bracken for The Narwhal

Amber Bracken is an award-winning photojournalist.

Press credentials are ever-present in the reporting world. I’ve used them throughout my 13-year career, as I covered crime scenes, sports, disasters, the Prime Minister and a range of other stories. A hundred or so of them – these laminated pieces of paper or plastic “hard cards” with my name and picture – dangle from multicoloured lanyards behind my office door.

But these credentials have also become a lever for media control – and they’re entirely unnecessary for anyone to work as a journalist. Those rights are granted in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, valued in our society and have been affirmed in our courts.

Despite this fact, police officers regularly require members of the media to present press credentials. Reporters whose documents adequately impress might be allowed to work. Others might face police interference or even arrest. In either case, providing the credential normalizes police regulation of journalists.

I was wearing a credential on Nov. 20, when I was documenting the RCMP’s enforcement of Coastal Gaslink Pipeline Ltd.’s civil injunction at a Wet’suwet’en pipeline-opposition camp for The Narwhal. Despite my credential, I was one of two reporters the police prevented from following a story of national importance and held in cold, dehumanizing cells for four days and three nights, all for the terrible crime of doing our jobs.

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How the day began in the house: At top, documentary filmmaker Michael Toledano works on his laptop as people wake up before the police's arrival; at bottom, Gitxsan supporter Shaylynn Sampson holds her back to the door moments before police broke it down.

The team at The Narwhal and I went above and beyond what’s required to ensure that police understood I was a working journalist. My editors notified the RCMP ahead of time I would be working there. I carried an assignment letter, and I identified myself as working press immediately and vociferously – and the RCMP were tracking my reporting. They arrested me anyway. Indeed, as officers drove me to jail, I overheard one ask another: “So does she meet the threshold for media?” They still couldn’t tell.

It’s important to know there is no standard definition of a press credential. Usually, it refers to something that can prove an affiliation with a specific outlet. But the shrinking news media industry means many working journalists, and most photojournalists like me, are now freelancers. That means non-exclusive relationships with multiple outlets, many of which won’t provide credentials to freelancers. Sometimes I work totally independently, only finding a publisher after the reporting is done.

A credential could also show membership in a journalism organization, such as the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ). The most common credentials are simply passes for a particular event.

But ultimately, police decide what they will take as a credential. One police officer once laughed at my colleague’s CAJ card, but others would, for instance, unquestioningly accept my Edmonton Oilers game pass. All it means is I photograph hockey.

My right to report is not dependent on whatever publication I might be associated with. Pretending otherwise – to validate an outlet-dependent credential as a prerequisite for journalism – allows police and other authorities to chip away at press freedoms.

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Police arrest the people in the house, who were then taken to the RCMP detachment in Houston while the road was cleared for Coastal GasLink's use.

What all forms of press credential have in common is what they’re not: They aren’t ID cards, declaring with certainty that someone is an “accredited journalist.” And that’s because, in Canada, there is no central body that vets journalists for professional status.

That’s a good thing. A hard line between the general public and a professional journalist would restrict the healthy exchange of ideas, and would limit new voices in journalism.

The rights to “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication,” granted in section 2(b) of the Charter, are not held in reserve for people who hold a media credential. These rights are given explicitly to everyone.

Our education, bylines, publications and professional associations, or our pictures on laminated cards – none of these make us journalists. While those things can facilitate and enrich our work, journalism is in the action of documenting, reporting, researching, interviewing, writing and investigating in a principled way. These ethical principles – such as fairness, accuracy, transparency and accountability – are important, especially as some bad actors poison discourse behind a tortured definition of journalism. These nuances aren’t captured in a media credential and police are not equipped to assess them.

The only thing that should matter to police is threat assessment and criminality. If people identify themselves as members of the media, are not obstructing police, and are engaged in reporting or documenting, we need to insist police keep hands off. Charges could always be filed later, but reporters can’t recover any time spent in handcuffs.

Indeed, the public record journalists help create can be the only path to accountability for powerful people and institutions – including the police. So why would we allow police to arbitrate who is allowed to contribute to that record?

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This was the last photo on Ms. Bracken's camera before her arrest. She and Mr. Toledano would not be released until three days later.

I totally get the appeal of an official-looking credential. It can bolster journalists’ sense of legitimacy, a reassuring counterpoint for the imposter syndrome that’s endemic in this practice. Plus, it’s fun to sometimes breeze to the front of lines and duck past security guards into special access areas.

But that sense of freedom is an illusion. In fact, credentials are just as often used to control and limit the media. For journalists covering the Fairy Creek protests against old-growth logging in British Columbia, RCMP required journalists to check in and submit to chaperones. Reporters were often kept in media pens, sometimes out of sight or at comically far distances from arrests.

A media coalition of outlets sought, and won, an amendment to logging company Teal-Jones Group’s injunction at B.C.’s Supreme Court. The federal government’s response to the filing admitted the RCMP intentionally excluded media from an unknown number of arrests at Fairy Creek.

When violations of press freedoms happen around the world, the Canadian government often speaks out. “Canada condemns anyone who in any way intimidates and harasses journalists working in defence of the truth,” then foreign minister Chrystia Freeland said in 2019. Ms. Freeland cited, among others, the oppression faced by Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, this year’s co-recipient of the Nobel Peace prize with Dmitry Muratov. Ms. Ressa faces an astounding 100 years in prison for reporting on the government in the Philippines.

In her acceptance speech, Ms. Ressa said “you have to know what values you are fighting for, you have to draw the lines early, but if you haven’t done so, please, do it now – where this side, you’re good, this side, you’re evil.”

But despite our leaders’ tough talk, those lines need to be drawn more clearly here at home. On one side are our Charter rights, accountability for those in power, and an inclusive press free from police interference. On the other is the inflated and misunderstood concept of a media credential, gripped tight by police and hung from our necks.

Press freedom: More from The Globe and Mail

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Illustration by Istvan Banyai

On the press and the police

Sylvia Stead: Police must understand the rights of journalists

Peter Jacobsen: Even the courts agree that injunctions should not prevent journalists from doing their jobs

Press freedom around the world

David Walmsley: It hurts us all when journalists are not free

Doug Saunders: The silencing of journalists is an attempt to silence us all

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