Canada: Police can’t decide who is and isn’t a journalist
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) firmly rejects the legal argument made by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) denying that photojournalist Amber Bracken was working as a journalist while reporting on a pipeline protest in 2021. The episode highlights the need for greater police training on press freedom
Amber Bracken, an award-winning photojournalist, and the environmental news outlet The Narwhal sued the RCMP earlier this year for Bracken’s arrest and three-day detention. The freelance journalist, who has worked with The Narwhal, as well as the New York Times and National Geographic, was arrested while covering a protest over a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia. The RCMP stated the reason for arresting Bracken and another journalist was because the two were “embedded” amongst the protestors, which has never been illegal in Canada, according to the Canadian Association of Journalists. The gas company that owns the pipeline later dropped its civil contempt charges against the journalists.
In a new development, the RCMP has argued in court filings that Bracken did not meet the threshold to be considered a journalist. According to the RCMP, Bracken was “not engaged in apparent good faith newsgathering activities” and was instead “aiding or abetting” those opposed to the project.
“We cannot accept the police arbitrarily deciding who is and isn’t a journalist. Amber Bracken was wrongfully arrested and detained for three days for reporting on a matter of public interest, and the RCMP should come clean about that. It’s further clear that Canadian law enforcement needs to review its policies and training with regards to how it approaches journalists in the field.
The editors of The Narwhal believe that The RCMP’s response to the lawsuit indicates freedom of the press is severely endangered in Canada.
The Narwhal’s Executive Editor, Carol Linnitt told RSF :
"By claiming Amber Bracken was not engaged in legitimate journalism at the time of her arrest, the RCMP is threatening the legitimacy of journalists across this country, especially those covering events critical to the public interest — like conflict around Indigenous lands and pipeline projects.
She added that the strategy of casting doubt on the journalist's credibility “only emphasizes the importance of our legal challenge and why Canadian journalists need stronger protections from police interference and the threat of arrest.”
Native issues, a dangerous subject for journalists
Arrests of journalists in Canada are relatively rare, but have particularly occurred during coverage of native issues. In February 2020, the RCMP arrested American documentary filmmaker Melissa Cox in New Hazelton, British Columbia, where Cox was filming Wet’suwet’en First Nation land defenders’ ongoing efforts to resist the gas pipeline from being constructed throughout their territory. The RCMP allegedly used excessive force against Cox, twisting her arm and tossing her camera to the ground. Additionally, Karl Dockstader, an award-winning journalist from the Indigenous Oneida Nation of the Thames, was arrested in September 2020 in relation to his coverage of a land dispute on an Indigenous territory. The charges against Dockstader were withdrawn in December 2020.
Canada is ranked 15th out of 180 countries on RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index.