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‘Arresting Reporters Is a Crude Form of Censorship’

Press freedom advocates warn of a concerning trend across Canada.

Jen St. Denis 21 Jun 2024The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on X @JenStDen.

Press freedom advocates in Canada are calling on Quebec prosecutors to drop mischief charges against Savanna Craig, saying her arrest and charges are part of a larger trend across Canada.

Craig was arrested in April while covering a pro-Palestinian protest at a Scotiabank branch in Montreal for CUTV, a university television station at Concordia University.

Although she identified herself as a journalist to police and showed them her press card, she was detained along with 44 protesters. Police have now recommended mischief charges against her.

“We’re very concerned about the behaviour of Montreal police towards Savanna Craig on April 15, and local law enforcement’s decision to recommend charges against her despite the evidence that she was not in violation of Canadian law at the time of her arrest,” said Katherine Jacobsen, the U.S. and Canada program co-ordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Arresting reporters is a crude form of censorship. Very simply put, a journalist in handcuffs cannot get their story out.”

A larger, troubling trend of arrests for Canadian journalists

During a press conference on June 20 organized by the Canadian Association of Journalists, press freedom advocates said Craig’s arrest is part of a larger trend across Canada, where journalists have been arrested and sometimes charged while covering protests and homeless encampments.

In 2016, journalist Justin Brake was charged with civil and criminal charges after reporting on the occupation of a hydroelectric dam worksite, a protest action led by Indigenous people. The charges were not dismissed until 2019.

In 2021, photojournalist Amber Bracken and filmmaker Michael Toledano were arrested while they were covering a stand-off between police and land defenders on Wet’suwet’en territory in northern B.C.

Bracken was reporting for the Narwhal at the time of her arrest, and the publication subsequently filed a lawsuit against the RCMP that alleged police had violated Bracken’s Charter rights.

In January 2024, Brandi Morin — an Indigenous journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, the New York Times and the Guardian — was arrested while she was reporting on a homeless encampment in Edmonton. While she was initially charged with obstruction, those charges were later dropped.

A common tactic: ‘catch and release’

Journalists are not always arrested and charged: police have also used a tactic called “catch and release.”

In 2020, photojournalist Jesse Winter was one of several journalists threatened with arrest while covering the conflict between the RCMP and Wet’suwet’en land defenders.

According to Winter, at one point police put him in a police vehicle and drove him out of the remote area, leaving him in a coffee shop in Smithers.

In 2021, Toronto police detained photojournalist Ian Wilms while he was reporting on police attempts to force homeless people out of a park.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, police drove him around for one and a half hours and told Wilms he “would face penalties if he returned to report on the park.”

A call for better public support

Kiran Nazish, the founding director of the Coalition for Women in Journalism, said her organization has tracked 76 cases of violations against women journalists in the past few years, and 18 of those violations have been by police. These incidents are happening across Canada, she said.

“Some of them involve charges, but there are other cases where police also violate journalists’ [rights], and these other violations that we have documented in the last five years include surveillance, threats to journalists, confiscation of equipment, interrogations and restraint of access,” Nazish said.

Craig said she has continued to report on pro-Palestinian protests in Montreal since her April arrest, but she’s worried that other journalists will be deterred from covering similar protests.

In Quebec — as in British Columbia — police recommend charges and prosecutors decide whether those charges will proceed through the court system. Craig said she has still not been formally charged, and understands the process could take months.

She also called on political leaders to publicly support press freedom in Canada.

“Many politicians, such as our own Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, make statements on World Press Freedom Day or when a foreign journalist is arrested, but he will not take a stand when journalists in his own country face the same treatment,” Craig said.  [Tyee]

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