Journalists say RCMP blocked efforts to cover police raids on Wet'suwet'en camps
TORONTO -- The editor of an independent news outlet is accusing the RCMP of disrupting the work of their reporter during the police raids on Wet’suwet’en camps last week, adding to a chorus of journalists and advocacy groups who are criticizing the police force’s alleged infringement on freedom of the press.
Beginning last Thursday and into this past weekend, journalists on the ground in B.C. have been covering the clashes between RCMP and Wet’suwet’en land defenders after officers began to move into Wet’suwet’en territory to enforce a court-ordered injunction requiring protesters to stop blocking roads.
The complicated situation requires media coverage to unpack not only the facts, but the consequences for reconciliation and Indigenous land rights. However, over the weekend, reporters attempting to document this action have alleged that the RCMP has obstructed, detained or even threatened to arrest them while they followed the protests.
“We were out of contact with (our reporter) for over eight hours while he was detained by the RCMP; we didn't know where he was,” Ethan Cox, editor for Ricochet, told CTVNews.ca.
He calls it “a major flashpoint for press freedom.”
“Media has to be able to move around, to do their jobs, they can't be restricted to this level by the RCMP when we're talking about covering raids on entirely nonviolent and unarmed settlements,” he said.
The RCMP said in a statement it would “make every reasonable effort to allow media personnel” to get as close as possible to the situation, without interfering.
The protests were launched to keep out Coastal GasLink workers aiming to build a pipeline through Wet’suwet’en land. Although the company has agreements with 20 First Nations Band Council Chiefs along the pipeline’s path, they do not have the consent of Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs.
On Dec. 31, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that protesters could no longer block the Coastal GasLink project.
To enforce the ruling, the RCMP, starting on Thursday, have been moving through Wet’suwet’en camps set up along the Morice West Forest Service Road one by one, arresting protesters and expanding an exclusion zone.
Early Thursday morning, before dawn, the first camp of land defenders was raided, at the 39-kilometre mark along the Morice West Forest Service Road.
RCMP confirmed in a press release that they arrested six people for obstruction just after 4 a.m.
During the raid, numerous journalists reported they were being instructed not to take photographs or get too close, or else they would be arrested.
A press release from the Canadian Association of Journalists detailed how two reporters who “were taping the arrest of a woman were told to move 100 yards away. That’s too far for cameras to capture what was happening.”
Even though the reporters complied, CAJ said, they were then detained by police and removed from the area.
Documentary filmmakers from Mutual Aid Media were at the protest, and shared a video with CAJ that showed RCMP officers threatening journalists with arrest on Thursday.
In the video, which was posted to CAJ’s Twitter account, VICE reporter Jesse Winter tells the camera: “I’m being told if I don’t leave the exclusion zone, I’m going to be arrested.”
“They’re arresting press?” the documentary filmmaker can be heard asking.
“Yes, you will be,” an officer says in the video. He then tells the journalists they have 10 minutes to leave the area.
In the wake of the raids, numerous Canadian and International journalism organizations condemned the reports of press suppression, including Reporters Without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International.
“These journalists had every right to be there, documenting the events in Wet’suwet’en territory without threat of arrest,”Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, said in their statement. “In fact, at times of heightened tensions, concerns about human rights violations and the use of police force, the role of the media is essential.”
Following the public backlash, the RCMP issued a statement Thursday evening saying that the force “respects the fundamental freedom of the press under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
“Journalists can rest assured that the RCMP will make every reasonable effort to allow media personnel to get as close as possible to the enforcement area, while ensuring no interference with police operations.”
According to Cox, that wasn’t their first response.
He told CTVNews.ca that when he asked RCMP media relations Thursday morning if his journalist on the scene, Jerome Turner, would be detained for doing his job, the RCMP responded “that he was going to be treated like anyone else in the exclusion zone.”
“Your reporter will be given the opportunity to leave on his own accord and return to the Access Control Point at the 27 km mark, or be subject to arrest,” an RCMP spokesperson said in an email Cox shared with CTVNews.ca.
The email was posted to Ricochet’s Twitter account, sparking a “huge outcry,” Cox said. Hours later, the RCMP issued the new Thursday evening statement walking back what they’d told Cox.
This new statement clarified that any reporters who were already beyond the advancing line of the RCMP raids would be free to report. Turner, at this point, was at the 44-km camp, and the RCMP had only raided the first camp along the road at 39-km mark, Cox said.
On Friday, the RCMP moved in to clear the 44-km camp, also known as the Gidimt’en checkpoint.
Turner and a documentary filmmaker were there, as were four land defenders. Cox said that when the RCMP arrived at noon, they instructed press where to stand and wouldn’t allow them to move even though Turner was unable to get a signal and send updates to his editors.
“He went completely dark,” Cox said, adding that they had no idea if he was safe for hours.
In addition, Turner was not allowed to leave the position the RCMP had specified for him to remain in order to go report on another interaction between land defenders and police that took place in a cabin out of his line of sight, Cox said.
The RCMP said in a press release that they arrested four individuals.
Turner had intended to continue on down the road to the Unist’ot’en camp to continue his reporting after the Gidimt’en checkpoint was cleared, but RCMP told him he had to leave, according to Cox. Except the land defenders had blocked the way out at the 27-km mark -- attempting to stop the RCMP from leaving with the four protesters they had arrested, Cox said.
“So obviously Jerome wanted to go to this blockade and report on it. The RCMP would not allow him to do that,” Cox said.
A legal observer being detained with Turner recorded an interaction with officers that Cox shared with CTVNews.ca. In the audio recording, he asks, “Are we being detained right now?”
“I guess, technically, yeah,” an officer replies. “You can’t go that way,” the officer says, referring to the blockade down the road, and “you can’t go that way,” referring to the Unist’ot’en camp in the other direction.
The officer described it as “like an arrest, but you’re not free to go, and you’re not being prosecuted.”
Cox said there was no real explanation from officers on the ground as to why Turner was not allowed to go report on either story, while media officers in contact with Cox over email claimed Turner had not been detained or arrested.
Cox shared all of the emailed correspondence from the RCMP with CTVNews.ca.
CTVNews.ca reached out to the RCMP about Cox’s allegations, and Cpl. Chris Manseau responded that they are “working on getting clarity around the approximate time, circumstance or location the incidents took place in order to ensure we know which records to review for full context."
He added that the RCMP is documenting the events themselves and making efforts to “record all decisions and interactions in support of the Supreme Court's direction,” in order to assist in a review of the situation.
He then repeated the assurance that journalists may report freely, provided they do not interfere with police operations.
What exactly constitutes interference has not been specified. When Cox asked for clarity, the RCMP responded that it “is not possible to provide a complete definition of ‘interference,’ because the conclusion will depend on supporting facts and circumstances.”
Eleven more land defenders were arrested on Saturday after refusing to leave the 27-km mark following the RCMP’s decision to extend the exclusion zone to the 4-km mark on the road, according to police.
CAN POLICE BAR THE MEDIA FROM THESE SITES?
Journalists have been arrested for not observing an injunction in order to report on protests before.
In 2016, a reporter named Justin Brake, embedded within a group of largely Indigenous demonstrators, accompanied them when they broke a lock and occupied the Muskrat Falls hydro project site in Labrador. He was named in a court injunction, which did not identify him as a journalist. He also faced a criminal charge of mischief.
In March of 2019, the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal overturned the charges and ruled that his role as a journalist should not have been overlooked, and that the press has a right and a responsibility to report on the news where it is happening, regardless of injunctions.
They also acknowledged in their 29-page decision that in the aim of Truth and Reconciliation, independent reporting on Indigenous issues, including protests, is more important than ever.
In October of 2019, B.C. became the first province to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is aimed at aligning the government’s laws and practices with the UN’s declaration.
The declaration specifies that governments must obtain “free and informed consent” from Indigenous groups before approving any project that affects their lands.
In a photo posted Monday to the Unist'ot’en Camp’s Twitter account -- which has been live-tweeting the entire standoff with RCMP -- men in construction vests can be seen dismantling a protest barrier on the bridge leading to the Unist'ot’en Camp. As they do so, it splits the word “reconciliation” -- emblazoned on the front of the sign -- in half.
Cox said his concern is that journalists will continue to encounter roadblocks in reporting on this story.
Amber Bracken, a documentary photographer reporting for Narwhal, tweeted from the Unist'ot’en Camp on Monday that they had “in no way” been obstructed during their reporting that day, then posted an update half an hour later that a camera person had been told they would be arrested if they continued walking adjacent to a road where arrested protesters were being held.
“We stand in solidarity with other media outlets that have journalists in the same position our journalist was until very recently,” Cox said.
“It's really hard to deny that there's a pattern of facts that suggests that the RCMP is going out of their way to try and limit media coverage of their actions in this area and that's a real problem that we should all be very, very concerned about.”