Journalists’ rights are your rights

Journalists in Canada don’t enjoy any special rights. They have the same right as the rest of us to go about our business, which in their case is getting information. Reporters and photographers are defined by what they do, not by job title. “Press passes” or jackets with the word “media” printed on the back are not symbols of privilege or authority, unlike the badges worn by police. 

They mean simply, “I’m here to report on what’s going on, not participate in it.” Any citizen has the right to do what journalists do, whether or not they are employed by news media.

In the 1970s, I was doing a feature story on a police department south of Montreal when my hosts offered to lock me in a holding cell for a while. Why not? So they took my ID, my camera and my notebook, clanged the door shut and walked out.

The view from the wrong side of the bars was entirely different from what you see on TV. Anxiety descended quickly once I realized how helpless I was. Could I really trust those cops? I barely knew them. What if there was a shift-change and they forgot about me? What if I needed to use the bathroom? What if they didn’t like reporters and wanted to scare the hell out of me? But these cops, like most, understood the experience and came back to get me reasonably soon.

“Not what you expected, eh?” they asked.

No, it was not.

Around the same time, an Ottawa cop told me the short ride on the station elevator could be very long for sex offenders: “It’s easy to trip in there, and if you’re wearing handcuffs, you could get hurt.” 

Some time later I was covering a demonstration in Peru when a soldier pointed his rifle at the centre of my chest while he yelled at me to join his buddies in a troop transport. I still see the worn muzzle of his weapon every time I think of that incident. (I had been warned: “Stay away from the army, but if they try to arrest you, stall as long as you can. Anything can happen once they’ve got you.” I stalled as long as I could before losing my nerve. Just as I was getting into the truck, the guy’s superior came over and freed me.)

Fortunately, in Canada the job description of a journalist does NOT include being arrested and held in police custody. I worked in a notably aggressive newsroom for 16 years without ever having to get a reporter out of lockup. I once interviewed a retiring Montreal cop who in a long career never took his gun out of its holster and delivered more than a dozen babies. He kept pictures of them on his desk. 

Amber Bracken and Michael Toledano encountered a different kind of cop last week. They were exercising their rights  — your rights  — when they were arrested by the RCMP while covering the blockade of Coastal GasLink near Houston, B.C. They were with a group of protesters in a small cabin, getting the inside story. At one point a Mountie pointed a rifle through a breach in the door as his colleagues broke it down. The cops ignored the pair when they identified themselves as journalists and held them for four days, along with the protesters, before transporting them about 300 km to Prince George. (In a statement, the RCMP later acknowledged they knew what the pair were doing there.)

Why? If the RCMP truly felt they had a case against the two, they could have issued an appearance notice — a legal requirement to appear in court on a certain date to answer charges. You don’t need a holding cell for that.

There is only one explanation: intimidation. 

Being in custody is frightening, even dangerous. The RCMP know that and we can assume didn’t want journalists watching them work. They wanted to put them in their place.

So they abducted them at gunpoint.

-30-

Postscript

  • From The Globe and Mail, November 22, 2021:

In a statement on Monday, RCMP said both journalists had been released.

“The RCMP does not question or dispute that the two individuals who identified themselves as journalists while being arrested, were in fact journalists or on assignment,” according to a statement from Eric Stubbs, an RCMP assistant commissioner in B.C.

  • In Canada, timing counts. If the police put you in custody, they must bring you before a judge within 24 hours. But if your local judges take weekends off, they can arrest you on a Friday and bring you to court on the following Monday. Criminal Code Sec. 83.3 (6)

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