A woman plays a trumpet while lying on the road as Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers assemble during an operation to arrest protesters against old growth timber logging in the Fairy Creek area of Vancouver Island, near Port Renfrew, British Columbia, Canada, May 24, 2021. Journalists covering the events have faced restrictions. (Reuters/Jen Osborne)

‘Like an open-air cage’: Police restrict reporters’ access to Canadian anti-logging protests

As demonstrators in the Canadian province of British Columbia protest the logging of one of the province’s last old-growth forests, located in the Fairy Creek watershed on Pacheedaht First Nations territory on Vancouver Island, journalists have been impeded from covering the story. 

Since May 17, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have enforced an injunction — approved by the Supreme Court of British Columbia on April 1 — to stop protesters from blocking the logging. In a press release and in subsequent RCMP communications, which CPJ reviewed, the RCMP announced a “temporary access control area” with restrictions on the press, including the mandate that journalists from “recognized media outlets” be accompanied by RCMP officers in order to report on actions such as the arrests of protesters.  

Journalists say the injunction violates their right to report: the RCMP has denied journalists access to the demonstration sites; demanded that members of the press stay within areas that are often out of earshot and only provide a partial view of what’s going on; and threatened journalists with arrest, according to local news reports, journalist accounts on Twitter, and a statement from the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ). 

Last month, a coalition of Canadian news and press freedom organizations filed a court application, which CPJ reviewed, that asks the British Columbia Supreme Court to modify the injunction order to prevent police from interfering with press access to Fairy Creek.

“What’s at stake here is nothing less than the public’s right to know,” said Ethan Cox, an editor with the independent news website Ricochet, in the outlet’s announcement of the court application. The group is waiting on the judge’s decision on the application, which it expects next month. 

Jerome Turner, a reporter at Ricochet, covered the demonstrations freely before police began enforcing the injunction, but has since faced restrictions at the site, he told CPJ via phone. The scene, he said, is reminiscent of last year in Wet’suwet’en territory in northern British Columbia, where police set up an “exclusion zone” where press were not allowed to enter as Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership and supporters opposed the construction of a natural gas pipeline on the land, according to news reports. Turner was detained for eight hours, as CPJ documented at the time. 

CPJ spoke to Turner about reporting on the demonstrations at Fairy Creek, what he hopes the court application will achieve, and his experience as an Indigenous journalist of Gitxsan descent. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CPJ sought response from the British Columbia RCMP, whose reply is detailed below Turner’s interview.    

What are these injunction orders? How do they impact journalists? 

The injunctions last year at Wet’suwet’en and this year at Fairy Creek were granted by Supreme Court of B.C. justices. They give wide ranging power to the police [to enforce them]. They say RCMP can use whatever methods they deem necessary, and exclusion zones have been one of the things that the RCMP decided to use. The police did try to rebrand it with some other longwinded name this year [a “temporary access control area” as designated in the RCMP press release], but every RCMP I’ve encountered calls it an “exclusion zone.” First journalists have to gain access based on whatever qualifications police feel are okay to them. Then they tell us where to stand and how to do our job.

The exclusion zone in general is odd, especially for media. They shouldn’t be able to tell us who can or can’t enter an area where events are happening. As long as I’m not getting in the way of any of the police operations, I should be able to report where I’d like to. And I think every journalist should be able to do that as well. 

In your view, why are the RCMP using these injunction orders to obstruct journalists from covering what’s going on? 

Control. That’s the entire reason why police do most of what they do. And I get it, there are probably dangerous people out there who wish to do RCMP harm, but at Unist’ot’en [a camp set up by members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation to block the construction of a gas pipeline in Wet’suwet’en territory] and here on Pacheedaht and Ditidaht territory, I haven’t witnessed any physical threat to the RCMP. 

[RCMP officers] want to be able to feel comfortable in the place that they’re doing work, and I understand that, but I am not a threat – unless reporting on exactly what happens is a threat. I get that they want control, but this is not control that they’re permitted to have according to the Canadian Charter. They’re not allowed to prevent the media from being present whenever they’re doing anything. 

In addition to the rules about movement, you have described some physical barriers on press access. What is the justification for that? 

We were told a lot of the officers complained to the operations managers that they felt unsafe doing their job because media were so close. Nobody interfered with them doing their job as far as I know. But we were told that, for officer safety, we weren’t going to be allowed to just freely witness. What it ultimately becomes is like a kennel – there’s police tape around a rectangle where press can be, which makes it so that all media get the exact same pictures and we can’t hear what’s happening while arrests are taking place. It just feels like a cage, like an open-air cage. 

We get an email from the RCMP in the morning that tells us where they’re going to be doing enforcement. They tell us the meeting point and we all drive in together with them. However, on several occasions now, they have been doing enforcement actions elsewhere, and they don’t mention that in any of the communications with us. This is another infringement on press freedom and public access. 

At times, we have been told that it’s for our safety – like we’re being prevented from doing our jobs for our own safety. I keep on saying this to RCMP: “It’s your firearm. That’s the threat to me.” There’s no reason why people who are peaceful can’t show up and witness this with their own eyes. We’re generally like the eyes and ears of the public. That’s why we’re given these press freedoms – to be there so we can relay what happens. 

I would never get in the way of RCMP doing their job and I just ask for the same in return. 

“I would never get in the way of RCMP doing their job and I just ask for the same in return.” 

— Jerome Turner, reporter at Ricochet

(Ricochet/Michael Simkin)

On May 27, the RCMP stopped you from passing through their checkpoint to cover police enforcement of the injunction order. Can you walk me through what happened?

We didn’t get to the police checkpoint at the time when the media caravan, led by police, went in and they were already gone. This was partially because one of the roads that we were using to go between these camps was fully deactivated, like a full trench was dug right across the road in three different places, so we couldn’t drive there. We had to go back and around and it took a really long time. 

At that point, they didn’t have enough personnel to come and get us and escort us in. Which is another way I feel they are infringing on press freedoms. If this is going to be your policy – that media have to have a police escort – then a police escort should be always available. 

I thought about walking out. But I think if I did that, then I would be arrested. I think if I ducked under that gate and just started walking up, then an arrest would have taken place. 

Ricochet is part of the coalition asking the courts to ensure press can access the area. Explain the legal application to me and what you hope it achieves. What are the stakes for press freedom?

The RCMP have been very consistent in limiting press freedoms and it seems intentional. I don’t see it changing unless we actually take a stand against it and make it known that these are illegal things that they’re doing based on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We have submitted a court application for exact clarity from the B.C. Supreme Court, which has granted this injunction, on what the police are and are not permitted to do by law. 

I just hope it becomes clear to the police and relieves them of any excuses that they can use against journalists to report. I hope that outside exclusion zones and inside exclusion zones, press freedom is the norm – as opposed to what I’ve experienced in these exclusion zones. The old growth story is why we’re here but press freedom is also a fairly significant portion of this – especially now that we’ve taken the RCMP to court for clarification.

Do Indigenous journalists face different treatment from police? 

Indigenous journalists, and just Indigenous people in general, take the initial brunt of any enforcement that’s happening in any given situation. Police speak to me differently and they definitely speak with Indigenous women journalists differently. Just yesterday, the Ricochet videographer and I were yelled at by RCMP officers saying we should be quiet – they came directly at us. I’ve been told that I’m confrontational, and I just tell them, “I’m just asking for you to uphold the law.” 

It’s different as an Indigenous person covering these things for sure. I’m used to it though – I grew up in Canada. This is the Canada I know. The RCMP were created by the federal government specifically to “take care of the Indian problem.” That was their mandate from the beginning and I haven’t seen evidence of that changing. At almost every turn, whether it’s RCMP or city police, whether it’s intentional or non-intentional, they seem to just go right for Indigenous people.

I am Gitxsan. I was raised by hereditary chiefs on a reserve. I am fully Indigenous and that’s my worldview. I think a lot of times people feel that it comes off as biased for some reason. But my perspective is fully informed by my cultural teachings and nothing that I ever submit is nonfactual. If something happens to Indigenous people specifically, I don’t know if a lot of other press would be able to recognize it, but I feel like myself and other Indigenous journalists, we’ll notice it immediately. But we have to be able to be there to witness it.

[Editor’s note: Dawn Roberts, director of communications of the British Columbia RCMP, told CPJ in an email that “the restrictions we have established from where media personnel can observe are minimal and only involve ensuring that journalists can have a safe vantage point from which to report, and in a manner that does not interfere with police officers working in an otherwise unsafe environment.” 

In response to questions about physical restrictions, Roberts described a “safe area from which media could see and capture police actions during enforcement.” Roberts also said that RCMP assigns media relations officers for the press when police are actively clearing a roadway and making arrests. 

Asked about Turner’s allegation that an RCMP officer told journalists to be quiet, Roberts said that media relations officers were unaware of the incident and that the RCMP was unable to review footage from the date in question because the materials are prioritized for the ongoing court proceedings. Roberts also said that media relations officers were not aware of any unfair treatment toward Indigenous journalists. According to Roberts, the RCMP has “taken significant steps to accommodate and support all journalists, without bias.”]