Last December, municipal officials in Ontario’s Niagara region issued a statement apologizing for the “inconvenience” caused to a reporter who was expelled from an unruly council meeting and had his laptop confiscated.
Ontario’s Ombudsman on Thursday described the episode more accurately: not as a mere inconvenience, but as an egregious violation of the journalist’s rights.
“My investigation confirmed that the Regional Municipality of Niagara acted unreasonably, wrongly and without legal justification when it expelled a journalist from municipal property and seized his personal property during a council meeting,” Paul Dubé wrote in his report on the affair.
The incident was touched off after a council session was declared in-camera in order to discuss a report on an ethics complaint against a councillor.
Journalists exited the room; a citizen blogger, who had stepped out previously to use the washroom, unwittingly left behind the device he uses to record proceedings. When the recorder was discovered, Mr. Dubé writes, “chaos ensued.”
In the hubbub, police were called, St. Catharines Standard reporter Bill Sawchuk’s laptop – which councillors speculated, with no evidence, could also be secretly and illegally recording the closed session – was seized by municipal officials, and both Mr. Sawchuk and the blogger were forcibly expelled from the building.
Mistakes happen, and people sometimes overreact. But this incident would be easier to forgive if Niagara’s regional administration was prepared to fully accept its gravity. Mr. Dubé isn’t satisfied that it has, writing “the region should do more to recognize the seriousness of its actions.” That includes making formal and personal apologies to the reporter and the blogger.
Journalists perform an essential civic function, a big part of which involves chronicling government decisions and those who make them, so voters can hold elected representatives to account.
It’s in vogue for political partisans to heap scorn on the “fake news media." On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump made an umpteenth reference to journalists as “enemies of the people."
Thankfully, we have public officials such as Mr. Dubé on hand to remind everyone of the truth.