Behal, who has been a photographer for the Toronto Sun for 36 years, was recording an anti-hate rally outside the Toronto city hall on August 11 when an unidentified man rushed toward him, hit him, and grabbed the hat off his head. Prior to the assault, the man and other demonstrators were berating Behal and his colleague, controversial columnist Sue-Ann Levy, over the right-leaning Toronto Sun’s editorial slant.
Behal was standing between demonstrators—who were counter-protesting a scheduled anti-Islam rally—and a row of police officers when the incident occurred, though video footage shows a row of police officers witness the attack and refrain from intervening. Behal can be heard exclaiming, “Officer did you see that? Can you arrest him for assault?” A spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service told the Vancouver Sun on Tuesday that police are now investigating the incident as an assault.
“A physical attack against one journalist can have a chilling effect on all journalists who wish to do their work without fear of violent repercussion, especially at protests,” said Margaux Ewen, Director of RSF’s North America bureau. “Though RSF is relieved to learn the Toronto police are now investigating this incident, we hope they will take a more proactive role in future scenarios when the safety of journalists is at risk.”
"Assaulting a journalist is never acceptable, regardless of any ideology involved. This incident and the increase in incidents like it are extremely troubling," Tom Henheffer, Vice President of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), a local partner organization, told RSF. "We applaud the Toronto police for launching their investigation. But more importantly, we call for civility and respect on all sides during protests."
A similar incident occurred last August when Global News reporter Mike Armstrong and cameraman Jean-Vincent Verveille were assaulted while reporting on a demonstration against far-right group “La Meute” in Quebec City. These aggressive acts against journalists covering protests in Canada mirror similar incidents taking place in Canada’s southern neighbor, the United States; where on August 11 and 12 a number of journalists were shoved and attacked by protesters and police during Unite the Right counter-protests.
Canada ranks 18th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.