RCMP officers’ confinement of Ricochet reporter Jerome Turner prevented him from fully executing his job as a journalist during Friday’s arrests at the Gidimt’en checkpoint in northwestern B.C and subsequent blockade of the road leading out.
Turner was out of contact for most of the day as police severely restricted his movement.
“From first contact with the RCMP, shortly after noon, to nearly 8 p.m., a documentary film maker and I were detained,” Turner later explained.
“While police made arrests, this was a kettle-type scenario where an officer was with each of us and we were not permitted to move freely to report or capture images. After the arrests I tried to leave, but was detained on the road for four hours and was not allowed to proceed to the blockade at 27 kilometre to report on it or return to Gidimt’en or Unist’ot’en to continue reporting there.”
The CAJ continues to receive reports of the RCMP blocking media from bearing witness to police actions in #Wetsuweten.— Canadian Association of Journalists (@caj) February 8, 2020
We request reporters document police interference & misuses of power by noting names, badge numbers (????: email@example.com)
Full statement: https://t.co/jVxoNCRWck pic.twitter.com/UcJtK3mzDl
- RCMP dramatically expand exclusion zone on Wet’suwet’en territory
- Press freedom in Wet’suwet’en territory: RCMP back down
- RCMP threatens to arrest journalist for doing his job during police raid in northern B.C.
- Untangling the ‘rule of law’ in the Coastal GasLink pipeline standoff
Recording of officer contradicts RCMP statements
Ricochet sent several messages of concern to the RCMP about Turner’s status and received the same response three times over the night.
“I have just confirmed that Jerome has not been arrested or detained. There are currently travel delays on the road,” wrote RCMP spokesperson Christopher Manseau in an email.
But in a recorded exchange that took place earlier that evening, an RCMP officer confirmed to a legal observer and Turner that they were under detention.
“Are we being detained right now?” asked the legal observer.
“I guess, technically, yeah,” said an RCMP officer. “Like you can’t go that way, you can’t go that way right now,” he added, pointing up and down the road.
“So we’re in detention?”
“Sure,” replied the officer. “It’s like an arrest ... [but] you’re not being prosecuted for any offence. That’s really it.”
Ricochet asked the RCMP spokesperson why he had said Turner was not detained given the recording with the officer. The spokesperson asked for more context, which was provided, and then declined to answer further.
The RCMP also did not answer questions about whether journalists currently at the Unist’ot’en site should expect to be confined or detained during police action.
The role of the media is essential at times of heightened tensions when there are concerns about human rights violations, and the use of police force https://t.co/SI7YkAV1gy #Wetsuweten #WetsuwetenStrong— AmnestyCanada (@AmnestyNow) February 7, 2020
RCMP threatened to arrest journalist
On Thursday, the RCMP communicated in an email that Turner was “subject to arrest” if he did not leave the exclusion zone.
Following a public outcry, the police changed their position later that day and explained that Turner would be able to report from within the exclusion zone. Journalists there “can continue to observe and report, but without interfering with police enforcement required to implement the order of the British Columbia Supreme Court,” wrote Manseau.
“I am thankful the RCMP stopped threatening to arrest Jerome,” Karyn Pugliese, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, told Ricochet. “But their behaviour was still far from respectful of his rights. It seems like they just changed tactics, probably in an attempt to avoid public criticism, and invented new ways to block media access.”
Increasingly frustrating to do our job on the ground and have never had to argue for press freedoms so strenuously (without a lot of success I'd add).— ChantelleBellrichard (@pieglue) February 8, 2020
The RCMP has been under fire for efforts to curtail media coverage of the ongoing conflict on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory as they enforce an injunction granting pipeline company Coastal Gaslink unfettered access to the area. Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs remain firmly opposed to having the pipeline cross their territory. Police are clearing Wet’suwet’en people and their supporters from the area and recently expanded their exclusion zone by more than 20 kilometres.
Statements denouncing the RCMP’s infringements on press freedom have come from Canadian organizations including the Canadian Association of Journalists, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and BC Civil Liberties Association and international groups including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International.
‘They weren’t going to let me go in the direction of the story’
On Wednesday night, with an RCMP raid imminent, Turner arrived at the police checkpoint set up last month to control access to the only road into the area. He was carrying the same letter of assignment and photo ID he had used to cross this checkpoint three times before.
This time, however, police refused him entry.
“Unfortunately, the rules have changed then,” an officer told him when he pointed out he had previously been granted access.
Ricochet made numerous phone calls and finally reached someone with the RCMP, who said that Turner would be permitted entry. Turner returned to the checkpoint and was allowed through.
Canadian journalists have a constitutional right to be present where the news occurs, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police needs to respect that instead of detaining and threatening to arrest journalists for doing their jobs #presfreedom https://t.co/9vzDJZQQrS @ricochet_en— RSF in English (@RSF_en) February 7, 2020
The next morning the RCMP raided a Wet’suwet’en site at the 39-kilometre mark, detaining and then removing two journalists, who were also prevented from photographing officers in tactical gear.
On Friday the RCMP breached the gate at Gidim’ten checkpoint. Turner was present to report from the scene, but he was detained by police in a ditch over 60 feet from where they were making arrests at the site of a bus and lookout tower. From there, he could not connect to the internet and was unable to send live updates and notify his editors as to his status and safety.
Police also attempted to make arrests at a cabin situated out of Turner’s view. He was not permitted to approach the cabin to report from there. Neither was he allowed to move in the direction of the Unist’ot’en site, where he had intended to continue his reporting.
“They weren’t going to let me go in the direction of the story,” he told his editors later that night.
In response to news reports that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Thursday obstructed journalists trying to cover police operations at indigenous protest camps in British Columbia, CPJ issued the following statement:— Committee to Protect Journalists (@pressfreedom) February 7, 2020
CC: @CommrRCMPGRC https://t.co/4VoqUDlKQZ
Given that the only options left to him were to remain in the ditch or leave the site, Turner decided to exit after police had finished arresting four land defenders.
He was driven out by the RCMP and returned to his vehicle, but detained on the road for another four hours after a roadblock was established to keep the RCMP from removing those arrested. There again, he could not move to report on the story, as police would not allow him to head to the roadblock.
Only after the road was cleared did he arrive at the police checkpoint, where he was finally released.