Dear Interim Ottawa Police Chief Steve Bell and Toronto Police Chief James Ramer,

With copies to:

David Lametti, Minister of Justice
Marco Mendicino, Minister of Public Safety
Pablo Rodriquez, Minister of Canadian Heritage
Marci Ien, Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth
Brenda Lucki, Commissioner of the RCMP
Doug Downey, Attorney General of Ontario

We are writing in relation to several police reports filed in Ottawa and Toronto by journalists or columnists for the Toronto Star, The Hill Times and Global News over an incident of online abuse naming a contributor associated with each of these organizations.

For the most part, these reports have been filed by racialized journalists or writers who are experiencing an increasing number of targeted, vile threats of violence. The volume and nature of the rhetoric has caused many of these journalists, as well as their respective organizations, to fear for their safety. The emails are threatening even in instances where police may determine they do not constitute a legal threat. (We have attached to this letter a sampling of the relevant messages.)

We are asking you to take several steps to address the current incidents and to work with our organizations to combat abuse of journalists and all victims of online hate and harassment.

First, many of the threatening emails use similar language, the same language commonly used by domestic extremist groups. Yet because your forces require individual complaints for each incident, and because each incident appears to be treated discretely, we are concerned that the connections among cases and the connections to extremist groups may be missed and that, therefore, this approach could fail to accurately assess or meet the threat. Journalists who have stepped up to publicly support the complainants have themselves been targeted by abusive emails, suggesting the abuse cannot be treated simply as separate incidents, but instead warrants a comprehensive and cooperative approach across forces, regardless of geography.

Second, we ask that you review and improve your respective processes for making complaints of hate speech and harassment. It should go without saying that victims should not be made to wait hours on the phone to file complaints or be treated rudely or dismissively by officers once they do get through. However, on several occasions, journalists from our organizations have experienced exactly that in the process of attempting to report their harassment. This not only discourages victims from complaining but adds to the already-considerable trauma they’re experiencing.

Third, beyond these particular incidents, we believe that greater transparency and dialogue are essential as we work towards our shared goal of keeping journalists – and all targets of hate – safe.

In particular, we ask that:

  • a process be established whereby media organizations can provide the police with summaries of multiple incidents and patterns of abuse that might not be apparent when police rely solely on the reports of individual complainants;
  • police provide regular updates to complainants on the progress of investigations and actions taken; and,
  • to both help police and reduce the burden on complainants, media organizations be given a formal role, which currently does not exist, in filing complaints on behalf of or with journalists who have become targets of hate and harassment.

It is increasingly evident that online abuse is a growing problem for people in our industry and beyond. We have seen up close the terrible toll that such threats and hate can take. This is a profound and spreading social harm that we cannot afford to ignore and which we must find ways to more effectively counter. We all have a stake in this fight.

We appreciate your taking the time to consider these concerns and would be pleased to engage in further conversation. We look forward to hearing your response to our suggestions and continuing to work together to increase the safety of journalists and improve our collective approach to online threats.

Sincerely,

Anne Marie Owens, Toronto Star Editor
Kate Malloy, The Hill Times Editor
Charelle Evelyn, The Hill Times Managing Editor
Sonia Verma, Global News Editor in Chief
Brent Jolly, President, Canadian Association of Journalists

Online harassment is #notok

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