Montreal journalists are finding reporting on student unrest this spring is somewhat more complicated than ever.

[[{“fid”:”4168″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”485″,”width”:”727″,”style”:”width: 400px; height: 267px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]By Chantal Braganza, Associate Editor

Last week, Sarah Leavitt was one of a few reporters at CBC Montreal assigned to cover student unrest in reaction to the provincial government’s recently announced austerity budget. A few events that week at the Université du Québec à Montréal had resulted in protester clashes with security and police over disrupting classes or staging sit-ins, while the CEGEP du Vieux Montréal tried a number of times that week to re-cast contested student assembly votes on whether to end that school’s class boycott.

While reporting at the UQAM campus on Apr. 8, where a standoff occurred, Leavitt was physically shoved between protesters and police by students who’d identified her press badge and mic cover. “The story at the moment was this standoff and I was right in the heart of it, so I was very much able to describe the action,” she said.

Covering the CEGEP’s fourth vote that week on Apr. 10 did not work out quite so well. Along with reporters from other outlets who’d come to cover the vote, Leavitt was first denied access to the meeting, allowed in on a second attempt and then escorted out when the assembly voted to make the meeting closed-door. While interviewing people outside the meeting about their thoughts on the vote, a small group of students prevented Leavitt from speaking to sources by yelling loudly enough to drown out interviews and following her and other reporters to every part of the building they moved to, until at one point violence was threatened against at least one reporter and the administration asked the media to leave. 

“This is not the majority of students,” Leavitt stressed in an email to J-Source. “Many of the students I managed to speak to did not want to give me their names and wanted the interview to be short, not because they didn’t want to talk but because they were intimidated by the small group of more militant students.” However, she added, many official representatives of the student body, such as the student association at the Cégep, would not grant interviews to CBC citing distrust of media as a main concern. “It has been difficult to provide a fully balanced coverage of events,” she said.

Reporters from a few other outlets in Montreal have faced similar circumstances over the past two weeks. News photographers have had cameras damaged or interviews disrupted.  

“I’ve certainly heard the sentiment that there’s a level of mistrust for corporate entities,” said Matt D’Amours, a student at Concordia University and reporter for The Link, its campus newspaper. “Students are generally more keen to speak to student entities, but even that has its limits.” For example, D’Amours, who has been live-streaming demonstration events and sit-ins for The Link, was able to stream about 15 minutes of the Apr. 8 occupation of one of UQAM’s buildings before leaving to stream the activity outdoors. 

“There was an anti-journalist sentiment generally—even people who were just thought to be journalists. People were screaming, ‘Press! Press!’ and were shoved out of the building.” 

“There are practical considerations, a fear they might be implicated in illegal activity,” said D’Amours. “I’ve spoken to people who are still in legal proceedings from past events.” 

“This spring’s protests seem to have escalated more quickly than people anticipated,” said Kalina Laframboise, an UQAM student and freelance journalist who has reported on the protests there for VICE. “I’ve never had a problem talking to protesters. But to go on record, a lot of people want to have their names withheld,” she said. “The nature of protests is volatile, especially at UQAM. And access seems to be difficult no matter what language you speak.”

Tanya Birkbeck, a CBC Montreal reporter who covered an UQAM occupation on Apr. 10, noted there is a marked difference in the student-press relationship today than during the 2012 Maple Spring. “I personally feel like it’s worse. In 2012, if I was intimidated, it was always almost from the police.”

“These protests are bringing up issues that, as journalists, we should be talking about. These concerns around austerity are valid journalistic questions,” she said. “But instead of that, we’re talking about access and whether or not we can talk to sources.”

Illustration photo by G Morel, via Flickr.