The CAJ is concerned about recent accounts of police interference with journalists reporting in Ottawa. The following is an open letter from CAJ president Brent Jolly to Ottawa Police Service Chief, Steve Bell. If you are a reporter in need of assistance, please reach out to us

Dear Mr. Steve Bell, interim Ottawa Police Service Chief,

I’m writing to you in my capacity as national president of the Canadian Association of Journalists with some concerns about clear violations of press freedoms that have been shared with me by journalists currently reporting from Ottawa.  

As you are aware, journalists have been on the receiving end of significant hostility. Journalists have been repeatedly threatened whilst in the field during ‘freedom’ demonstrations across the country. We note, for example, how one journalist was shoved while doing an on-camera. Another journalist in Ottawa was recently doxxed, with their home address being posted on 4chan. Other journalists were yelled at and spat on while covering demonstrations near the Canada-U.S. border in Surrey, B.C. and the Okanagan. We acknowledge the Surrey RCMP has launched an investigation into the treatment of journalists at the event. 

Over the weekend, however, it has come to our attention that several journalists reporting on events in Ottawa, in particular the so-called “Freedom Convoy”, were denied access by law enforcement to several areas where newsworthy events were taking place. This was in spite of having media credentials and other required documentation, such as Parliament Hill passes. We are disappointed these limitations continue to be placed on journalists despite our association’s ongoing advocacy efforts.

We are aware, for example, that Globe and Mail reporter Marieke Walsh; Global News Ottawa bureau chief Mercedes Stephenson; CTV Parliamentary reporter Annie Bergeron-Oliver; investigative reporter Justin Ling; photojournalist Carlos Osorio; and freelancer Emma Jacobs (reporting for NPR), amongst others, have been denied or delayed in reporting due to this police interference. Some reporters have also been threatened with arrest for simply doing their jobs. This is unacceptable and should never have to take place in a democratic society. 

I’d like to emphasize that these journalists were in the pursuit of information in the public interest without intent of interfering with the work of law enforcement officers in any way. Canadian law protects the ability of journalists to access and report on any matter of public interest as it is essential to the proper functioning of democracy. 

We would emphasize the recent decision by the B.C. Supreme Court, which ruled that the RCMP’s practice of employing vast “exclusion zones” were not legal. In his decision Justice Thompson stated the RCMP must “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 enforce injunction orders.

A landmark court decision on this issue was passed down by the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal in March 2019, commonly known as the Justin Brake case. It reaffirmed that special considerations apply to journalists covering a protest even when an injunction order has been issued.

In his decision, Justice Derek Green put forth a five-point criterion that establishes, by his legal interpretation of conditions under which those serving as journalists are allowed or can be excluded. 

Journalists are legally permitted if:

  1. The person is engaged in apparent good faith in a news-gathering
  2. He or she is not actively assisting, participating with or advocating for the protesters about whom the reports are being made;
  3. He or she does no act that could reasonably be considered as aiding or abetting the protestors in their protest actions or in breaching any order that has been already made;
  4. He or she is not otherwise obstructing or interfering with those seeking to enforce the law or any order that has already been made or is not otherwise interfering with the administration of justice;
  5. The matters being reported on are matters that can broadly be said to be matters of public interest. Particular consideration should be given to protests involving Indigenous peoples.

We are keen to keep channels of communications open on this matter and hope you will take swift action to stop your officers’ ongoing violations of press freedom. If you do not, we stand prepared to go to court to defend journalists’ right to report in Canada. We have repeatedly called on law enforcement agencies to respect the freedom of journalists to do their jobs.

If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me by email at brent@caj.ca or on my cell at: 289-387-3179.

Thank you for your time and careful consideration of this matter.

Best wishes,

Brent Jolly

Cc: RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police, Sûreté du Québec, Calgary Police Service, Durham Regional Police

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