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When undercover police pretend to be journalists, they not only make reporters’ jobs harder and more dangerous but make it harder for minority groups to be heard, speakers at a Canadian Journalists for Freedom of Expression panel discussion said.

By
Grant Buckler

When Kelly Toughill, then a Toronto Star reporter, was sent to cover a protest near the Ontario legislature in the late 1980s, she arrived on the scene and started asking participants what their protest was about. “The answer that I got was, ‘you’re a CSIS agent, so I won’t tell you,'” recalled Toughill, now an associate professor of journalism at University of King’s College in Halifax.

That made it harder for her to tell readers why the protest was going on, but that’s not all. The protesters were there to draw public attention to their concerns, yet they were afraid to talk to a reporter from Canada’s largest newspaper because they mistook her for a law enforcement agent.

At a panel discussion on police officers impersonating journalists, sponsored by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) at its annual general meeting at Massey College in Toronto, Toughill said she relies on examples like that one to explain why police shouldn’t be allowed to masquerade as reporters.

Non-journalists often have trouble understanding why police working undercover shouldn’t pretend to be reporters or TV camera operators, Toughill said. They think the media are asking for special treatment. But when police pose as reporters, she said, they destroy the trust between the media and their sources and increase the danger to journalists going into certain situations.

And Phil Tunley, a CJFE board member and the lawyer leading CJFE’s legal efforts to stop the practice, said it’s not only journalists who are affected. Protesters trying to draw public attention to an issue need the media to get their message out, he said, and that gets harder when they can’t be sure reporters are who they say they are.

“First Nations organizations have been consistently targeted because of their need for the media,” he said. “It’s a technique that we can see is particularly effective with regard to vulnerable groups like aboriginal groups.”

A case in point was Ontario Provincial Police Constable Steve Martell’s impersonation of a television reporter at an Aboriginal Day of Action in 2007. Panelist Peter Rosenthal, a lawyer who represented First Nations groups at the Ipperwash inquiry, said Martell testified that he impersonated a journalist on his own initiative and that the force had no policies requiring him to obtain approval before doing so.

The provincial attorney-general’s office responded to this testimony not by seeking to stop the practice but by imposing a publication ban – later lifted – to try to keep it from becoming public knowledge, he said.

In response to letters from CJFE, the CBC, the Canadian Association of Journalists and RTNDA: The Association of Electronic Journalists, the commissioner of the OPP said the practice would continue and the Ontario attorney-general declined to intervene in police operations, said Tunley.

“I don’t think any of us knows how common this practice is,” Rosenthal said. But it is clear that it happens fairly frequently.

Peter Edwards, another panelist, who covered Ipperwash for the Toronto Star and later wrote the book One Dead Indian: The Premier, The Police and the Ipperwash Crisis, noted that undercover police posed as reporters at the funeral of Dudley George, the aboriginal leader killed by police at Ipperwash.
 
One audience member at the panel discussion mentioned cases where undercover police wielding video cameras were present among reporters at protests. In 2007, a Vancouver police officer posing as a reporter for the local free daily 24 Hours requested a meeting with anti-poverty protester David Cunningham and arrested Cunningham as soon as he arrived. (See this Vancouver Province story.)

Toughill referred to another case where a new reporter covering native protests at Burnt Church, N.B., was practically unable to do her job because protesters assumed she was an undercover police officer.

CJFE and the CBC are preparing an application under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to have the practice of police impersonating journalists outlawed. They hope to involve other organizations in the application.

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Grant Buckler is a retired freelance journalist and a volunteer with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and lives in Kingston, Ont.