RCMP accused of creating ‘crisis of press freedom’ in Wet’suwet’en raids
This story was originally published by The Tyee and appears here with the editor’s permission.
The RCMP’s handling of the enforcement of an injunction in Wet’suwet’en territory has generated accusations that police unnecessarily interfered with reporters doing their jobs.
“This is them trying to control the media and block information getting out to the public, and that’s why it’s a misuse of police power,” said Karyn Pugliese, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.
“Regardless of whether or not we get it perfect every time, we just can’t have a functioning democracy without media keeping an eye on the state and reporting back to the public on what they’re seeing so the public can make critical decisions about what kind of country they want to live in.”
An RCMP spokesperson says the police did what they needed to do to ensure safety as they enforced the injunction, and B.C. Premier John Horgan says anyone who feels their rights were infringed has recourse through law enforcement and the courts.
But Ethan Cox, an editor for Ricochet Media based in Montreal, said the police actions were an attack on journalists and the public’s right to know.
“This is a situation, a flash point, a very severe crisis of press freedom that’s happening in British Columbia,” he said. “This is a crisis, and we clearly have a police force that is not respecting the rights of the media and that’s a constitutional problem. That’s not some small potatoes issue.”
Since Feb. 6, the RCMP have made 28 arrests as they enforced an injunction and cleared three camps on the Morice West Forest Service Road west of Houston, B.C.
The camps were in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline to bring gas from the province’s northeast to the LNG Canada plant in Kitimat on the coast.
In a piece published Saturday, Cox and a co-author detailed the experiences of Ricochet reporter Jerome Turner. They say the RCMP detained him for eight hours by making him wait with officers away from police activity, preventing him from observing while they made arrests.
Other reports included RCMP officers threatening to arrest reporters, keeping them further than necessary from the action and restricting what they could photograph.
Amber Bracken is a photographer who was at the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre on assignment for The Narwhal. The centre was the third camp raided by the RCMP, who had already been criticized for how they’d treated journalists at the first two camps.
“We were allowed to stay for the duration, which is absolutely not what I expected based on last year and what happened at the other camps,” she said. “It did soften and it did improve, but not before journalists were threatened with arrests, not before journalists were excluded from the territory, and just generally dissuaded from covering it.”
Even though the RCMP’s approach had improved, they still told media members that they were in the injunction zone and could be arrested, but that they were choosing not to arrest them at that time, Bracken said.
“It was very soft, but there was also this reminder, ‘You’re kind of skating on it,’” she said, adding that the warning came across as a threat.
The RCMP’s motivation to limit media access is understandable, Bracken said. “They really didn’t want images of police brutalizing Indigenous people out in the world. They didn’t want a repeat of last year where there was heavy enforcement by tactical officers in Indigenous lands. It was something they were very much trying to avoid.”
Amanda Follett Hosgood, who reported for The Tyee from the centre, noted that journalists were initially largely left alone by the police. But as the arrests proceeded, they were ordered to return to a confined area some distance from the people in custody.
The CAJ’s Pugliese said press access issues were recently tested in court when the Crown pursued civil and criminal charges against Justin Brake, a reporter for The Independent online news outlet.
Brake was arrested in 2016 for disobeying a court order when he followed a group opposed to the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador onto private property.
The Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal found last March that Brake was doing his job and not breaking the law. The ruling stressed that the historic under-representation of Indigenous communities in Canadian media made the freedom of the press to cover such stories even more vital.
“What the court decided on the civil case is they decided that journalists have a right to be present, they do have rights even under a court order to be present when news is happening and it’s in the public interest,” Pugliese said.
Journalists have to allow police to do their job and can’t be part of the protest themselves, but are otherwise free to observe, she said.
“As long as we’re doing our job and keeping out of the police’s way of doing their jobs, we have a right to be present.”
There’s a long history of journalists being on the scene to observe police and state action, Pugliese said. “The right has always been there. The Crown did try to challenge that right. They lost.”
“We’ve got the rights, and we’ve just got to protect them,” Pugliese said. “We’ve got to stop this from sliding down a slippery slope where police are allowed to do arbitrary things, not only to us as media, but if they can silence media then it’s so much easier to silence a private citizen who doesn’t have a corporation or a media lawyer behind them.”
A spokesperson for the RCMP in B.C., Cpl Chris Manseau, said police officers know reporters have a right to be present.
“Obviously we’re going to allow the reporters as long as you know they too have to abide by the injunction,” he said. “It’s still an exclusion zone. So long as they’re not going to get involved or step in the way of the approaching members, so long as they’re not going to get involved with the CGL, they’re not going to impede, we really had no issue.”
Police do have to balance access rights with other considerations, including being able to do their own jobs and ensure safety, Manseau said.
“It’s a dynamic and ongoing fluid situation,” he said. “Very difficult for us to give 100-per-cent access at all times, especially in a situation where there are so many variables that we don’t know.”
For example, he said, the RCMP restricted reporters’ movements while police approached a cabin at one of the camps. “We weren’t sure if the people in the cabin were going to be dangerous — I don’t want to put anybody in harm’s way,” he said.
“We take a slow, measured approach, so to have somebody who’s going to be right in there beside us and not going to be following our tactics because they’re trying to report independently is going to be very, very difficult for us,” he said.
Manseau said that in some cases the police helped reporters with access, taking one reporter into the Unist’ot’en camp on Monday and two more on Wednesday. “We tried to be as helpful as we could and if there are things in the future that we could do better, absolutely. We’re only human too and let’s work together on this. I think it went very, very well, but maybe that’s just my perspective.”
Mike Farnworth, B.C.’s solicitor general, said that the primary concern always has to be safety and in the end reporters were able to do their jobs.
“My understanding was there were some issues, that they got resolved and there were media on site who were able to report and record and in fact I saw clips on the media on what was taking place.”
Bracken said the RCMP claim that their restrictions on reporters were based on “safety” concerns rang untrue. “It’s pretty apparent that nobody in camp was a risk to any of the journalists on the ground.”
Pugliese said that it’s up to employers and journalists to assess safety, not police.
“It’s a farce that it was for safety,” she said. “I’ve talked to all of them [the reporters], and the only time they felt unsafe is when they were being threatened by the RCMP.”
Cox cited an interview with Ricochet reporter Turner, who noted journalists go into war zones. They may wear a helmet and bulletproof vest, but they still go where the story is happening so that they can observe, he said, because that’s the job.
The events on Wet’suwet’en territory were benign compared to the risks many reporters take.
“This is the furthest thing from a war zone,” Cox said. “Nobody has weapons except for the RCMP in this context. Safety is a really poor excuse for saying journalists can’t do their job.”
Even if the situation improved as police moved up the road, it remained bad, he said.
“The RCMP relaxed their position on threatening to arrest journalists on site, to simply detaining journalists and interfering with their ability to freely cover what’s going on. I guess that’s better, but neither of those things is acceptable.”
Cox said the RCMP’s actions were denounced by the CAJ, the Native Journalists Association of North America, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
“When they denounce the RCMP, they’re denouncing the government of British Columbia,” Cox said.
Asked about the criticism of how police had treated media, Horgan compared it to the experience of reporters who found themselves blocked by activists from entering or leaving the legislature on Tuesday.
“Often times your jobs are difficult,” he said. “On how the RCMP conduct their affairs, that’s operational decisions by them. Again, I don’t want to live in a society where governments direct law enforcement to do anything other than enforce the laws.”
Journalists who felt unable to do their work because of a decision by the police should take it up with law enforcement and the courts rather than with the premier, Horgan said. “Should the media that were involved feel that their rights were infringed, they have access to the court system as all British Columbians do.”
Told of Horgan’s comments, Cox from Ricochet was critical.
“I think it’s outrageous, just outrageous, for the premier to say if the media are having their rights infringed by a police force for which he is responsible, then it’s up to the media to sue the police and that they shouldn’t address their complaints to the premier,” he said. “That’s wild.”
The provincial government contracts with the RCMP to provide policing. “He has a responsibility to ensure that his police force is respecting press freedom,” Cox said. “That has not been happening in the past week, and it very much is the responsibility of the premier to address that and make sure that the abuses that we saw this week not reoccur.”
Cox said he’s been talking with the CAJ and other outlets that were affected and it’s possible they will decide to file a lawsuit. But before making a decision, they have been waiting to see what steps the government takes.
“We need answers from the RCMP, and if we’re not able to get them from the RCMP, then from the government, on how these abuses of press freedom happened, and what is going to be done to make sure they don’t happen again,” he said.
“If we don’t get those answers, I think certainly all options are on the table to make sure that press freedom is vigorously defended, because this is a test case with serious ramifications for the ability of media to do their job.”
Harsha Walia, the executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association said there clearly are legal rights for reporters doing their jobs.
“With the exclusion of media, it certainly engages very rigorously Charter-protected rights to freedom of the press,” said Walia. “We know the Supreme Court has in successive cases upheld the importance of access to media and free media for a democratic society.”
The restriction of media access is part of a larger issue, she said. “The violation of Charter rights for anybody trying to access to a roadway engages a significant violation of people’s liberty,” she said.
“For Wet’suwet’en people, it’s of course especially appalling because they’re being denied access to their own territory,” she said. “So they’re being denied their inherent and constitutionally protected right to access their territories and be on their land.”
Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018).