Free speech warriors missing in action as police restrict press freedom

Right-wing ‘free speech warriors’ silent as RCMP undermines freedom of press
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This past month in Canada we’ve seen a blatant case of state-sponsored censorship of a free press.

Armed RCMP officers told journalists what they could and could not photograph during raids on a series of Wet’suwet’en sites standing in the way of construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. If they didn’t comply, they faced arrest.

Multiple journalists were detained during these raids, and police interference with journalists has only gotten worse since, with reports from the international Committee to Protect Journalists and other watchdogs that a journalist was arrested while covering an RCMP raid on a rail blockade in New Hazelton, B.C., this week. She has reportedly been given a court date and may be charged criminally.

At best, they remained silent.

The saga recalls the treatment of journalist Justin Brake during his 2013 coverage of an Indigenous occupation, which led to a 2019 court decision that treating journalists like protesters when police enforce injunctions is unlawful.

Yet during all of this, Canada’s so-called “free speech warriors” have remained silent.

At worst, they cheered

One might assume that people hellbent on protecting “free speech” on campus would be up in arms.

So where is the outrage from Rebel Media, Faith Goldy, Lindsay Shepherd, Gad Saad and company?

Bexte framed it as an affront to free speech, based on — I kid you not — the “God given rights” of children to have their parents decide what’s good for them.

As self-appointed defenders of free speech, they should be outraged at the heavy-handed state repression of journalists.

At best they remained silent. But when it came to The Rebel’s Ezra Levant and Rhodesia aficionado Keane Bexte, they cheered.

Police surveillance

Last October Rebel News and another far-right news organization, True North Centre, used the argument of freedom of the press in their successful lawsuit against the Leaders' Debates Commission to gain access to the federal leaders’ debate. The commission had initially denied them entry on the shaky justification that they “engaged in advocacy.”

“This isn’t just about Rebel News,” wrote Levant at the time. “It’s about freedom of the press for all Canadians — and whether or not Justin Trudeau gets to determine who is a journalist and who isn’t.”

As much as it pains me to say it, Levant was right. The government isn’t and shouldn’t be in the business of deciding who is and isn’t a reporter, no matter how yellow they are.

During the campaign, Bexte was outraged when plainclothes RCMP officers surrounding Trudeau’s campaign bus in Montreal asked him to produce his “journalist licence” (there is no such thing) and searched his belongings.

“After leaving the debate,” wrote Bexte on Twitter, “I couldn’t believe it: journalists in Canada now can expect police surveillance.”

I’m not sure how Bexte is just learning this. In my admittedly short career, I have reported extensively on protests for independent media, and it’s a common occurrence for police in Montreal to deny the validity of press credentials. I can’t count how many times a snarky SPVM officer told me, “I could’ve printed myself a press card like that at Staples.” Or how many times I was carded, shoved and detained.

Free to talk nonsense

In another instance of comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted when it comes to free speech, The Rebel spilled a lot of ink over a B.C. Supreme Court case involving a trans boy suing his father, who kept misgendering him in the media and tried to deny him access to gender-affirming health care. The father was forced by a court order not to do more interviews with conservative media on the subject to avoid exposing the child to further threats and harassment, which, the judge said, would be tantamount to family violence.

Bexte framed it as an affront to free speech, based on — I kid you not — the “God given rights” of children to have their parents decide what’s good for them.

In mid-January, Bexte was one of the first reporters to be granted passage through the RCMP “exclusion zone” on Wet’suwet’en territory in northwest B.C. He uncritically repeated RCMP scare stories about land defenders laying explosive devices and deadly traps along the road. Ricochet’s Jerome Turner spent weeks reporting from all four sites along that road (Bexte only made it to one) and saw no evidence of any explosives or traps.

Bexte claimed the Wet’suwet’en were a “fake First Nation” — even more outrageous than the mainstream media’s misleading narrative of division between the band council and the hereditary chiefs — because, get this, they registered a not-for-profit organization.

Far-right freedom

So when the RCMP detains reporters, trains rifles on them, threatens them with arrest and interferes with their editorial decisions by forbidding them from taking pictures of tactical officers, one would expect a media outlet that made so much noise about their press freedom just last fall would cross the proverbial aisle and stand in solidarity with their colleagues from VICE, The Tyee, The Narwhal, and Ricochet against this blatant police overreach.

They didn’t.

In fact, Bexte was gleeful about the raid, while Levant has been busy offering free lawyers to vigilantes who attempt to dismantle blockades.

Do outlets like this truly care about protecting the freedom of the press, or is it just a pearl necklace to clutch when it suits their far-right agenda?

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