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public editor

Last week, two journalists were arrested and then held for several days by the RCMP for violating a court order against blocking access to a natural gas pipeline project in Wet’suwet’en territory in northern B.C., before being released.

The RCMP said they did not question that photojournalist Amber Bracken and documentary filmmaker Michael Toledano were journalists on assignment. The court heard that RCMP officers knew Ms. Bracken from her work and that she was wearing badges that identified her as press. There is also a video of both telling police they are journalists during the arrest.

This is not the first time police have stopped and arrested journalists, it has been going on for decades. Such arrests and detentions prevent journalists, temporarily or otherwise, from covering important news events. Their cameras are often seized and coverage is disrupted. While the Canadian media are pushing hard against this, readers need to understand that without photojournalists, we would not be able to witness what is happening in our country and elsewhere.

The Canadian Association of Journalists has penned a letter backed by more than 40 news organizations, including The Globe and Mail, to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, calling on him to “correct the RCMP’s actions and to ensure that going forward, journalists’ right to report will be protected in this country.”

“At Fairy Creek, journalists were also repeatedly threatened and detained by RCMP officers. The situation became so egregious that, in August, the CAJ and a coalition of media intervened in the issuance of an injunction, asking the courts to remind law enforcement of the rights of media,” the letter goes on to say.

“In two scathing written rulings, B.C. Supreme Court’s Justice Douglas Thompson determined that the vast exclusion zones, ‘seriously and substantially’ impacted important liberties. Justice Thompson ultimately refused to extend the injunction when he issued his second decision in September, stating the way the RCMP continued to violate charter rights when enforcing the injunction was causing a ‘depreciation’ of the court’s reputation.”

On Thursday, lawyer Peter Jacobsen (who acts for The Globe among other media outlets and is the chair of the Canadian Issues Committee of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression), wrote in The Globe that “these outrageous arrests and extended denials of journalists’ liberties run contrary to past decisions of Canadian courts … .

“In a 2019 case, the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal ruled that a civil injunction around protests against the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project should not have applied to Justin Brake, a reporter who was covering the blockade. The court decided he was fulfilling his journalistic function by serving as the eyes and ears of the public.”

Photographers have been detained taking pictures of police and others on public property, even though experienced, professional photographers know not to impede the work of police and to balance that with getting the most impactful image.

A 2014 J-Source article quotes Mr. Jacobsen saying that generally if you are on public property you have the right to take photos.

These confrontations put journalists, but especially photojournalists and videographers, at risk doing their jobs.

Visual journalists have no choice but to be up close when news happens, as opposed to a reporter who can interview people later and work from a distance. You can’t recreate the single image of an event that becomes seared in the public’s mind. Think of the Jan. 6 attempted overthrow of the U.S. Capitol or the murder of George Floyd. Visuals have a huge impact.

Photographers and videographers are exposed to physical danger and also bear the emotional and psychological burden of what they witness. Freelance journalists can be at a greater disadvantage. In this case, Ms. Bracken’s employer, the online magazine The Narwhal, has been very active with legal and journalistic support and she thanked them on Twitter for their support. The Narwhal reported this week that the RCMP had tracked Ms. Bracken in an active investigations database.

The police and military use exclusion zones and barricades to block media access, along with detentions and arrests. But they must understand media rights, which the courts have upheld. Mr. Mendicino must take action to further ensure the police and military understand the rights of journalists to document what is happening.