‘Enough is enough’: Canadian news organizations file legal action for press freedom at Fairy Creek The Narwhal

A coalition of Canadian news organizations and press freedom groups, which includes The Narwhal, has announced it will file legal action to allow journalists substantive access to report on continuing demonstrations against old-growth logging in the Fairy Creek and Caycuse watersheds near Port Renfrew, B.C.

“Over the past week, we’ve repeatedly seen the RCMP shift the goal posts on how it plans to allow journalists access in order to cover this important public interest story,” Canadian Association of Journalists president Brent Jolly said in a statement.

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“Every day is a new day with new excuses from the RCMP about why access is limited. Enough is enough.” 

Notice of legal action from the coalition, led by the Canadian Association of Journalists, follows a formal letter the coalition sent on May 25 to the RCMP, requesting the media be allowed fair access to the demonstrations and arrests and expressing deep concern about serious violations of press freedoms.

More than four dozen people have been arrested this month in on-going civil disobedience actions that include chaining themselves to forestry bridges and logging road infrastructure and hanging in trees.  

“We have documented reports from numerous journalists who have been refused entry to the area of RCMP enforcement through the broad use of exclusion zones,” the coalition letter states. “When granted access, journalists have had that access restricted in ways that materially prevent them from doing their job.”

In April, forestry company Teal-Jones obtained a court injunction to allow the arrest and removal of protesters from access points to planned logging in the Fairy Creek area, the only intact old-growth watershed remaining on southern Vancouver Island. 

The RCMP subsequently set up an exclusion zone restricting access to a protest camp in the Caycuse River valley — one of several areas where members of the Rainforest Flying Squad and its supporters have camped since last winter in an effort to stop logging — and notified members of the press they were “invited” to meet a RCMP media relations officer at a Honeymoon Bay golf course for registration and a guided tour out to a “designated area for media” near the blockades. 

In an email from RCMP Corporal Chris Manseau, Jesse Winter, a freelance journalist who has been covering the blockades for The Narwhal, was told he would require a police escort to the media zone daily and that “the media relations officer on site will advise what time the group must exit the enforcement area.”

“No one will be permitted to remain, however, you may choose to return the next day and again be escorted back into the designated media area,” the email said. “Due to timing and logistics, these plans may vary. We cannot guarantee you access if you are not there on time, but we will ensure we provide ample notice if meeting times change.”

Ricochet Media editor Ethan Cox (no relation to the author) said the RCMP have been using broad exclusion zones to interfere with members of the media for at least eight years, across multiple provinces.

“Legal precedent and the RCMP’s own oversight body say doing so is beyond the authority of the force, but it keeps happening,” Cox said. “What’s at stake here is nothing less than the public’s right to know.” 

Carol Linnitt, managing editor of The Narwhal, said there is a glaring lack of clarity when it comes to freedom of the press in injunction zones. 

She said the risk to journalists is highlighted by the case of journalist Justin Brake who faced civil and criminal charges for reporting on Indigenous opponents of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam in Labrador. Brake, who documented the activities of demonstrators as they broke through a gate to march onto a construction site in violation of an injunction, was eventually cleared of criminal charges for mischief after a 2019 court ruling found he was rightfully doing his job as a journalist.

Linnitt said journalists have an unconditional responsibility to report on events of public interest and it is not acceptable for the RCMP to place arbitrary conditions on how journalists fulfill that social role. 

“It is also unacceptable for journalists to be threatened with arrest or corralled into police cordons with limited freedoms,” she said. 

“Press freedom is especially important at a time when police powers themselves are the subject of public-interest reporting. How the RCMP respond to civil disobedience is a concern fundamental to democracy and police themselves should not be allowed to determine the parameters of press coverage.”

Linnitt said Canadians are paying close attention to police activity in the Fairy Creek and Caycuse watersheds. “If the RCMP hope to standardize protocols for press coverage of protests and during the enforcement of injunctions, they should do so with an eye to preserving the integrity of broad journalistic freedoms.”

On May 18, the CAJ issued a statement that called on courts to limit RCMP power when granting injunctions.

The coalition’s letter to the RCMP underscored that the ability of journalists to access and report on matters of public interest receives strong protection under Canadian law and is essential to the proper functioning of democracy. 

“Injunctions, such as the one in place at Fairy Creek, are not intended to interfere with those legal rights and interests, and must not be enforced by the RCMP in such a way that unnecessarily prevents or impedes journalists exercising those rights and performing their vital function,” the coalition wrote. 

The coalition also includes Capital Daily, Canada’s National Observer, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), The Discourse and IndigiNews. 

Manseau did not respond to The Narwhal’s request for comment and the RCMP had not acknowledged receipt of the coalition letter by time of publication.