The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) strongly condemns the recent arrest of a photojournalist by RCMP officers at the Fairy Creek watershed on Vancouver Island. The CAJ is dismayed by the actions of the RCMP, which took place just days after a B.C. Supreme Court judge ordered police not to interfere with media access absent a bona fide operational reason for doing so.
On Tuesday morning, RCMP arrested photojournalist Colin Smith, who was covering the ongoing demonstrations at Fairy Creek for Victoria Buzz. Despite Smith having identified himself as media, officers seized his backpack, drone, and two professional grade cameras, and detained him in the back of a police van. Police later decided not to proceed with charges and Smith was instructed to leave the site immediately.
“The ink was hardly dry on the decision before the RCMP made the decision to knowingly disregard Justice Thompson’s ruling,” said CAJ president Brent Jolly. “The utter contempt the RCMP has shown for the law, as it relates to the vital role journalists play in a free and democratic society, is both unacceptable and unjust.”
This arrest is the latest example of the spirit of the judge’s order not being respected by the RCMP. Multiple reporters on the ground at Fairy Creek have contacted the CAJ since the court decision to raise concerns about RCMP behaviour including refusing reporters access to Fairy Creek in explicit violation of the court order.
Several reporters have also told the CAJ that the RCMP is deterring photographers from taking photos and requiring journalists to stay far away from where police were arresting protestors.
On Thursday afternoon, the CAJ sent the RCMP an email demanding they explain why journalists continue to be prevented from doing their jobs. Dawn Roberts, the director in charge of B.C. RCMP communications, provided a written response.
“With respect to the judicial decision it has been made very clear to us that the decision does not prevent the RCMP from implementing a temporary exclusion zone or perimeter around police to conduct arrests and removals,” the statement reads, claiming that the police are not excluding journalists from the area. That statement contradicts multiple accounts provided by journalists who have spoken with the CAJ.
The RCMP response also emphasized that Smith was asked, on multiple occasions, to move and did not comply with police directives. Smith was not charged and was later released.
In a scathing written ruling handed down on Monday, Justice Thompson determined that the vast exclusion zones, affiliated checkpoints, and media restrictions set up by RCMP officers at the injunction area are unlawful and “seriously and substantially” impacted important liberties.
“The evidence of justification is so thin that I conclude that it does not support a rational connection between the media restrictions and the efforts to manage the risk of escalation of road-blocking activity,” wrote Thompson. “My assessment is that the degree of interference with liberties of […] members of the media is substantial and serious.”
In his reasons for granting the order, Justice Thompson stated the following:
The order sought by the media and granted by the Court will have practical utility because the RCMP will be reminded by the presence of this additional language in the order to take account of the media’s special role in a free and democratic society and the necessity of avoiding undue and unnecessary interference with the journalistic function when police make operational decisions or exercise discretion surrounding the arrest and removal of persons contravening the order.
Justice Thompson cited previous instances where the legality of broad RCMP exclusion zones has been challenged, including at Wet’suwet’en late last year when RCMP officers unlawfully detained multiple journalists, inviting international condemnation from press freedom organizations.
While the judge granted the order sought by the CAJ and a coalition of news organizations to not interfere with media access absent a specific need to do so, the CAJ encourages all journalists to exercise careful judgement while out in the field during the heat of enforcement operations.
“The harassment of journalists at the hands of the RCMP throughout the enforcement of this injunction has been wholly arbitrary and, more broadly, injurious to our shared respect for the rule of law,” said Jolly. “It appears that the decision issued by Justice Thompson has only served to embolden the actions of some RCMP officers in the field. These egregious abuses of power and the blatant disregard for the law will not be tolerated.”
The CAJ is Canada’s largest national professional organization for journalists from all media, representing more than 1000 members across the country. The CAJ’s primary roles are to provide high-quality professional development for its members and public-interest advocacy.
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President, Canadian Association of Journalists