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Journalist’s arrest by RCMP sparks controversy over press rights

by HR Law Canada

The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) has expressed deep concern over the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) filing in response to a civil suit brought by award-winning photojournalist Amber Bracken and news outlet The Narwhal. Bracken was arrested in late 2021 while documenting the construction of TransCanada’s Coastal GasLink pipeline on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. The RCMP’s court filing has ignited controversy over the freedom of the press and the treatment of journalists.

In their response, the RCMP argues that Bracken was “aiding or abetting” protesters and therefore was “not engaged in apparent good faith newsgathering activities” at the time of her arrest for failing to comply with an injunction order.

CAJ President Brent Jolly condemned the RCMP’s characterization of Bracken, stating, “These efforts by the RCMP to cast Bracken as a so-called ‘protester’ are a lazy and wholly indifferent interpretation of the role journalists play in the fabric of Canadian democratic society.”

Jolly continued, “The RCMP’s response in this filing is perhaps the most farcical demonstration yet of the RCMP’s efforts to restrict press access and stifle journalistic work. It’s a masterclass in ignoring and denying the constitutional and legal protections afforded to journalists in Canada to do their jobs without interference.”

The RCMP maintains that Bracken, on assignment as a journalist, was not exempt from obeying the terms of the injunction order. They argue that her presence with pipeline opponents “went beyond her role as a journalist” and interfered with police operations.

The issue of reporters embedding with protesters within injunction zones was addressed in a 2019 ruling by Justice Derek Green, known as the ‘Brake case.’ Justice Green reaffirmed that special considerations apply to journalists working in good faith, even when injunctions are in place. Green’s decision laid out a five-point criterion under which journalists can be allowed in such zones.

According to the ruling, journalists are legally permitted if they are engaged in apparent good faith in news-gathering of a journalistic nature, do not actively assist or advocate for protesters, do not aid or abet protesters in breaching orders, do not obstruct law enforcement, and report on matters of public interest, particularly those involving Indigenous peoples.

Despite Bracken citing this legal precedent to local RCMP officers during her arrest, the RCMP’s response appears to disregard these criteria.

CAJ President Jolly emphasized, “It has been well-established that journalists are independent observers. At no point is there any evidence that Bracken’s efforts to document events physically prevented, impeded, restricted, interfered with, or obstructed RCMP officers in the execution of their duties.”

As part of her lawsuit, Bracken is seeking civil damages, arguing that the RCMP violated her liberty rights under Sections 7 and 9 of the Charter. The suit also asserts that her arrest breached Bracken and The Narwhal’s Section 2(b) rights to freedom of the press.

Jolly concluded, “Even with the benefit of months of hindsight, it is utterly dismaying to see that Canada’s national police force continues this woe-begotten persecution campaign. Rather than admit its mistake, the RCMP has employed a gaggle of government lawyers to launch an inquisition to demonize a Canadian journalist for simply doing their job.”

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