OTTAWA, March 4, 2020 /CNW/—If Canada's political leaders won't stand up for journalists whose press-freedom rights are subject to the whims of the RCMP, they better prepare for some harsh criticism, and perhaps embarrassment, when Canada hosts the second instalment of the Canada-U.K. Global Conference for Media Freedom in Quebec City later this year.
That conference will come on the heels of the RCMP's arrest of an award-winning American filmmaker, Melissa Cox, for no expressed reason as she reported on a railway blockade in New Hazelton, B.C.
"It is a sad irony to see Canada trying to lead a conference on Press Freedom. I welcome the scrutiny of the international community on the deteriorating state of media rights in Canada," said Karyn Pugliese, the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ).
"No authority in Canada seems capable of keeping the RCMP from violating the media's constitutionally protected rights. The arrest of filmmaker Melissa Cox demonstrates Canada is rapidly losing any moral authority to lead international talks that relate to supporting press freedom. Then again, perhaps a healthy degree of public shaming from the international community will help correct our course," said Pugliese.
Cox was arrested on Feb. 24 while filming a railway blockade at New Hazelton, B.C., in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs. In a video shot by a bystander, members of the crowd inform the RCMP that Cox is a member of the media. They shout, "You're arresting media, do you realize how many human rights you're violating?" and "Freedom of the press! Shame!" Multiple officers are seen prying Cox's camera from her hand. Cox says officers painfully twisted her left arm as they cuffed her and later tampered with her camera. This is difficult to see on the video as officers lined up in a way to block filming of the arrest.
Cox was held by the RCMP for approximately seven hours and released on restrictive conditions, including that she "keep 10 metres off any CN property or work-site." So far she has not been charged.
Cox has been an independent documentary filmmaker and journalist for over a decade. She recently worked on Death by a Thousand Cuts which had its world premier at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto and won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival. Cox has also worked for Democracy Now, Vox Media and Truth-Out, among others.
Freedom of the press is protected by Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In March 2019, a landmark decision by a Newfoundland and Labrador court known as the Justin Brake case reaffirmed that special considerations apply to journalists working in good faith and reporting on matters in the public interest—even when an injunction is in place, or events occur on private property.
The RCMP has detained and threatened to arrest journalists, and has detained journalists, on multiple occasions this month after they began aggressively enforcing a court injunction in northern B.C. to ensure that Coastal GasLink and its contractors could resume work constructing a pipeline in the unceded territory of the Wet'suwet'en nation. The threats and detainments were made despite promises that the public could "rest assured that the RCMP will make every reasonable effort to allow media personnel to get as close as possible to the enforcement area."
"The problem is there seems to be no mechanism to ensure the RCMP actually operate within the law. They have been sanctioned by an oversight committee for past actions, yet they continue to disrespect the constitution, and they appear to be emboldened by the fact there have been no consequences. It's the wild west," said Pugliese.
The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) previously censured the RCMP for violating Charter rights during a 2013 anti-shale gas demonstration in New Brunswick. The commission noted similarities in a letter released last week criticizing RCMP exclusion zones.
The CRCC stated: "...police may only establish "buffer zones" in accordance with the parameters detailed by the courts in the relevant jurisprudence and reviewed in detail in the Kent County report." The Commission also noted that "blocking public access to roadways, especially when such actions may have directly or indirectly unnecessarily hindered the media's ability to report on the protests, may have been unreasonable."
Despite these sanctions, the RCMP set up a broad exclusion zone and repeatedly used the exclusion zone to detain, remove and threaten arrest to journalists.
The Canadian Association of Journalists is a professional organization with more than 700 members across Canada. The CAJ's primary roles are public-interest advocacy work and professional development for its members.