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The man approaches Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland quickly, thrusts a microphone toward her and blurts out two questions about the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as they walk a few paces. Then, he and another man run into each other.

And that is the moment when a publicity stunt masquerading as journalism turns into a debacle for the RCMP. The first man is David Menzies of Rebel News, the right-wing website. The second is a still unidentified plainclothes RCMP officer.

In a video of the incident, the officer cuts short Mr. Menzies’s questioning, telling him that he is under arrest for assaulting a police officer. The Rebel News staffer is then pushed into a wall before being handcuffed and placed in a police vehicle. He is released, without being charged, within 20 minutes, a few blocks away.

One needn’t be a fan of Rebel News (we aren’t) or think that Mr. Menzies’s activities constitute journalism (we don’t) to be concerned about the incident. He was asking Ms. Freeland a legitimate question about the IRGC. She didn’t exhibit any great enthusiasm for his questions, and declined to answer. There is nothing in the video of the encounter to indicate that he posed any threat to her. His tone was rude, but rudeness is not an offence under the Criminal Code.

And yet, an RCMP officer thought it prudent to turn a bump of the shoulders into an allegation of assault of a police officer, a serious crime carrying a prison sentence of up to five years. No reasonable person could look at that interaction and conclude that Mr. Menzies had any intention of assaulting the officer.

The RCMP says it is examining “the actions of all parties involved,” but it is patently obvious that the allegation of assault was spurious and the officer used it as a means to detain Mr. Menzies.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre would like to turn the incident into an indictment of the freedom of the press under the Liberals, an undoubtedly lucrative fundraising pitch. The same goes for Rebel News, which is making a pitch for donations to pay for the costs of suing the RCMP, York Regional Police and Ms. Freeland.

The idea that press freedom is under grave threat is giving far too much credit to Mr. Menzies, a professional provocateur who has been detained by police several times, including at a Conservative Party event. If anything, the RCMP’s actions have amplified what should be a marginal voice.

But that does not excuse the actions of the RCMP, who need to explain their gross overreaction. Mr. Menzies is not a journalist, but he still enjoys the protections of the law.

Just as important, the RCMP need to reassure the public about their ability to protect politicians. If the force wants to contend that there was a security threat – unlikely, since the York police quickly determined that Mr. Menzies posed no peril – why was Ms. Freeland accompanied only by an aide? If the Rebel News staffer was thought to be dangerous, why was he allowed to continue to wave around his microphone and interview the officer arresting him?

There are, of course, legitimate security concerns for senior politicians, with tensions escalating during the pandemic and again since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. Ms. Freeland has been harassed. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was shouted out of a Vancouver restaurant in November.

The force should tap a third party to conduct the review of the incident and commit to releasing that review, unredacted. If the officer involved is found to have acted improperly, there should be consequences.

Beyond that immediate step, the RCMP and the government should reconsider how protective details function. Senior ministers cannot be left exposed.

The force also needs to come up with guidelines for dealing with journalists, or those purporting to be. That may have avoided other heavy-handed moves, such as the arrest of photojournalist Amber Bracken in November, 2021, in British Columbia. This is not solely an RCMP issue; Edmonton police charged Ricochet Media reporter Brandi Morin with obstruction on Wednesday.

Police have a tough job in balancing legitimate security needs against the equally legitimate rights of Canadians to interact with their elected officials.

The RCMP’s actions this week have made that tough job even tougher.

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