Toronto, Vancouver Island protests shine spotlight on media access

TORONTO – Efforts by police and politicians to restrict public access to the recent events in Toronto and Vancouver Island have put the spotlight on the role of journalists and raised concerns about freedom of the press.

TORONTO – Efforts by police and politicians to restrict public access to the recent events in Toronto and Vancouver Island have put the spotlight on the role of journalists and raised concerns about freedom of the press.

Toronto authorities’ decision to cordon off public parks last month as city workers and police cleared homeless camps sparked a backlash from media and supporters who requested the city to allow reporters in during on-site operations.

Pressures for media access in Toronto followed a court ruling ordering the RCMP in British Columbia to allow reporters access to blockades in Fairy Creek where protesters were protesting the deforestation of ancient vegetation. The judge in the case, initiated after journalists reported being banned from the website, stated that police should only restrict access if there were operational or security concerns.

In Toronto, the city has dismantled several homeless camps – created during the pandemic as many avoided shelters for fear of COVID-19 – sparking protests and confrontations that sometimes erupted into violence.

The Canadian Association of Journalists described the ban on reporters from Toronto’s parks during the evacuation of the camps as “disappointing as a witness and completely unacceptable” and stressed that media rights are enshrined in law.

“Stop arresting or threatening reporters for no good reason. This is a red line that must not be crossed,” said Brent Jolly, the association’s president, in an email.

Tensions at Lamport Stadium Park boiled over two weeks ago after a large crowd refused to leave the authorities-fenced off area. Several scuffle broke out and the police pressed those who did not comply. At the end of the day, police said 26 people were arrested and charged with criminal offenses including assault with a gun, attack on a peace officer and trespassing.

The day before, a camp in Alexandra Park was evacuated by city staff and police after a fence was put up. Several people were also arrested during the operation, including a photojournalist from The Canadian Press who was escorted out of the cordoned off area in handcuffs. He received a trespassing complaint that does not incur a fee but prevents him from returning to the site for 90 days.

A city spokesman said staff had closed the parks during the clearings and prevented anyone from going in, “not just media,” to speak to camp residents and remove tents and debris.

“We understand and appreciate the concerns expressed by the media and the role they play in testifying and documenting city operations,” Brad Ross said in a statement.

He said the city has arranged pooled media coverage for the operation of the Lamport Stadium, which typically gives selected members of the media access to an event so that they can later share the material collected with others.

“The pool layout is designed to allow the media to see the city’s action while ensuring everyone’s safety and privacy sensitivity,” Ross said.

However, Jolly of the CAJ said the pool coverage the city set up for the clearance of camps was “inadequate” as it restricted journalists’ ability to “freely report” evictions in a public park.

“Trying to control the work of journalists while they are at work is totally inappropriate,” he said, adding that a pool agreement is generally used when press space is limited.

“The work of journalists is both professional and public service, and any attempt to short-circuit that work is utterly inconsistent with Canada’s longstanding tradition of a free press.”

Carissima Mathen, professor of common law at the University of Ottawa, said it was difficult to make an effective legal challenge to gain access to “relatively short-term” events as it is unlikely to be able to obtain an injunction in a timely manner .

“It’s possible you could try to bring the case right after the fact for some kind of explanation, but that’s usually not very practical,” she said.

Mathen said it was important to consider issues such as how far from a fence the police and city staff are on duty, whether reporters can talk to people when they come out, and how long the barricades will remain in place.

In the case of Fairy Creek, these journalists have been able to obtain an injunction for weeks to prevent the RCMP from entering the blockades, Mathen said.

Five Toronto city councilors, who wrote to the city’s mayor last month denouncing the “extreme show of force” during the evacuation of the camps, said any obstruction to media access to the operations was “undemocratic and unconstitutional.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on August 4, 2021.

Elena De Luigi, The Canadian Press

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