Over the past week, protests demanding justice for the victims of police racism and violence have unfolded in cities across North America. In addition to the widespread violence inflicted on protesters, dozens of cases of direct police aggression towards journalists have been documented. Montreal was no exception, and a new investigation from Ricochet illustrates that violence towards journalists is part of a long-standing pattern of police behaviour in the city.
On Sunday night, a group of student journalists and medics had to plead while on their knees with their arms in the air after a police officer pointed a non-lethal gun at them at the end of the Black Lives Matter protest in Place des Arts.
The three reporters from The Link, one of the independent newspapers at Concordia University, said they told the group of riot police they were there as journalists prior to having the gun raised at them near Saint-Laurent metro station. They were uncertain whether it was a rubber bullet gun or one intended for launching tear gas.
“We’re yelling at him, ‘We’re medics, we’re press, don’t shoot!’” recounted Alexandre Denis, one of three who was taking photos that night. “He held that gun up through a few yells of press, journalist, and medic.”
“I felt we were seconds away from getting directly shot at,” Denis said.
Their experience is not unheard of. Dozens of journalists, particularly independent journalists, have been complaining about their encounters with Montreal police for years.
Journalists and photographers have often been collateral damage in the brutality inflicted upon protesters by the police, particularly during the 2012 Quebec student strike and the 2015 anti-austerity movement.
A widespread problem
After her encounter with police, Jane (not her real name) wasn’t sure if she could continue taking photos for her newspaper at protests.
Following the end of a protest in downtown Montreal on March 27, 2015, she and three other journalists were leaving to take the metro when they were rushed by a group of police officers, she recounted.
“The officers rushed us from behind, and with no warning,” said Jane, who was working as a photographer with The Link at the time. She had been covering the story of anti-austerity protests that spring.
“I ended up being picked up and thrown,” she said. “It didn’t make much sense. It’s not like they had asked us to move.”
Jane said she and her colleagues were stomped on by police. Later that night at an emergency room, she learned she had a hematoma, or localized bleeding resulting from trauma, in her leg.
“I wrote off getting injured to the fact that was part of reporting around this police force,” Jane said. “That’s what’s going to happen and that happened to almost everyone around me in some way, so you kind of felt it was your turn.”
In a survey conducted by Ricochet, 14 independent journalists described 19 instances of assault at the hands of Montreal police between 2012 and 2019. Respondents were primarily freelance, civilian, or student journalists at the time of the incidents.
The majority of assaults played out at Montreal protests where riot police were present. Respondents also described other forms of intimidation including arbitrary arrest, ticketing, threats of arrest, and having non-lethal guns pointed at them.
Meeting between police and journalists yielded mixed results
In 2015, several instances of brutality towards independent and mainstream journalists were documented in the media. The situation was so serious that a group of independent journalists met with the city’s police with the hope of putting an end to it.
The meeting, held in September 2015, was facilitated by police commander Ian Lafrenière, then with the police media relations team (Lafrenière is now the parliamentary secretary to the minister of public security in Quebec’s CAQ government), Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the Association des journalistes indépendants du Québec.
“Journalists used to have a certain space where they would be left alone if they were far enough from the action,” said Simon Van-Vliet, an independent journalist who was the president of AJIQ during that time. “Then around 2012, police started targeting not only alternative media, independent journalists and media activists, but they really roughed up mainstream journalists from La Presse and from Le Devoir.”
“It was intentional on their part, because clearly they saw the way that the media was covering police operations made them look bad and they didn’t like that.”
Tom Hennefer, executive director of CJFE at the time, said that during the meeting police had shown a willingness to put an end to the arbitrary assaults and arrests.
During the 2012 and 2015 protests, he said, the situation on the ground “was more similar to an authoritarian country.” But “the meeting actually went extremely well and there was a major reduction in the number of assaults,” Hennefer told Ricochet.
While some assaults against traditional media were reported in 2012, the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec told Ricochet they have not received any complaints related to police conduct in recent years.
“Generally speaking, we condemn that kind of behaviour,” said executive director Catherine Lafrance.
Montreal police declined an interview with Ricochet, mentioning the personnel who attended the 2015 meeting with independent journalists were no longer serving with the police force.
“After consulting our records, we found no incidents reported as a result of a problem with a reporter,” wrote the police force in an email to Ricochet.
‘Violate their own code of conduct’
Whether any long-term improvements have been made, however, particularly when it comes to conduct towards student and independent journalists, is still up for debate.
In 2016, after the meeting with police, former Concordia University Television videographer William Ray collected testimonies from 10 independent journalists who detailed their experiences with police from 2013 to 2015. They reported five instances of assault and one instance of attempted assault. Several journalists also described being blocked from filming, at times because police called their legitimacy into question, while others faced arrest or ticketing alongside protestors.
Some journalists surveyed said there was a noticeable improvement in police conduct in these years, noting fewer assaults towards journalists at protests. However, none expressed satisfaction in police conduct towards journalists outside the mainstream.
Many respondents, including Van-Vliet, feel they have yet to see a change in police conduct.
“They more often than not violate their own code of conduct,” he said. “It’s like it’s suspended the moment they move into riot control.”
Excluding incidents already documented in Ray’s 2016 report, Ricochet was informed of 19 instances of assault and one instance of attempted assault at the hands of police from 2012 to 2019. Taken together, the two investigations found 24 instances of assault and two instances of attempted assault.
Of the assaults disclosed to Ray and Ricochet, 11 happened following the negotiation with Montreal police in 2015, with one attempted assault happening in 2018.
The assaults described included direct physical assault, being hit with a baton, shoving, ramming into journalists with bikes, and targeting individual journalists with pepper spray.
Some journalists, like photographer Willie Wilson, say they have been assaulted by Montreal police multiple times. During his time shooting for The Link, he said, one officer pushed him into a postbox after the end of a protest in December 2015.
“I went absolutely flying and I hit the box and fell down,” he said, mentioning he was following the officer’s directions to move before the assault. “I was already on the sidewalk, I wasn’t standing on the street.”
Then on March 4, 2017, according to Wilson, he and another photographer were targeted individually when they were pepper sprayed in the face by an officer without first being asked to disperse. At the time they were attempting to photograph a fight happening 10 to 15 feet away at a protest near city hall.
In the following weeks, another photographer was batoned in the face while taking photographs at a protest near Concordia University in downtown Montreal. This attack, on March 25, 2017, resulted in broken teeth for the photographer, who asked to remain anonymous.
One freelance journalist, who also asked to remain anonymous, told Ricochet that an officer tried to push him down the stairs while he was filming the end of a demonstration that had made its way into Berri-UQAM metro station on Feb. 2, 2018.
Ricochet also counted one assault that happened outside of a protest. Freelance journalist Zachary Kamel said he was assaulted in June 2019 for attempting to film an intervention on his phone at Café Cléopâtra on St. Laurent Boulevard in downtown Montreal. (Kamel has written for Ricochet.)
“I was having dinner at the Pool Room when I noticed six police cars pull up in front of Café Cléopâtra,” he tweeted the next day. “I crossed the street and began to film from in front of the club. Without warning, officer Daniel Legault boxed me against a fence. He declared that it was illegal to film the police, which is a lie. I called him on it, at which point he knocked me in the head and grabbed my phone and pocketed it.”
Police provide ‘ground rules’ for journalists
Montreal police wrote up a series of ground rules for journalists to follow when reporting at events with riot police following the 2015 meeting with independent journalists. The guidelines shared that October encouraged “professional” behaviour in the field, like non-participation in the protest, and asked journalists to leave if a protest was deemed illegal, which would be signalled by a line of riot police hitting their shields with their batons.
“The way that’s written, it’s dangerous for anyone reporting because it leaves the decision in the hands of the police whether you’re a journalist or not, which doesn’t sit well with me,” said Cori Marshall, a former CUTV reporter surveyed by Ricochet.
In the guidelines, police agreed to one main change in their conduct: the end of profiling journalists based on “their media or their accreditation to an association.”
“Press accreditation from an association of journalists does not provide immunity. It remains a useful identification tool and not a free passage,” wrote the police, without mention of assaults and other forms of intimidation.
Hennefer said the group of about two dozen journalists at the meeting agreed to the terms. Police did not make the guidelines publicly accessible to journalists, and as a result they are not well known.
Four months after the meeting, testimonies reveal that seven independent journalists experienced questionable police conduct during a chaotic nightly anti-austerity protest on Dec. 18, 2015. The same night, police were criticized for drawing a gun on a group of “angry” protesters.
Jon Cook, then an editor with The Link, says he and two other colleagues were chased by a plainclothes officer while attempting to document a violent arrest after the protest.
“At that point we were shocked and just standing still. Then the cop who lost his mind turns to us, [and] just starts screaming ‘I’m not police! I’m not police!’” said Cook, who was rushed and nearly knocked over by the officer soon after.
“Had I made the wrong step, or instinctively intervened, I would have gotten arrested too,” he said. “We might have gotten brutalized.”
Two independent journalists also described being profiled on the basis of their media outlet and past coverage of protests that day. Reporting for CUTV, Marshall described being approached by a group of officers who stopped and carded him before the protest.
Rick Cognyl Fournier, a livestreamer with an independent media collective at the time, was also approached before the protest by two officers who greeted him using his legal name.
“One of the officers calls me by my full name of Richard instead of Rick,” he wrote in a public testimony. “I never use Richard unless required by law, my Canadian ID uses Richard while my U.S. ID uses Rick. This for me confirms that these SPVM agents have profiled me.”
Marshall also said he and another colleague were lunged at by officers when they tried filming an arrest during the protest.
“There wasn’t any follow-up from that meeting” in 2015, said Van-Vliet. “It never really went anywhere.”
“They weren’t serious about actually making space for independent media, and I think it was really mostly just to say they had done it, they showed up.”
Those surveyed by Ricochet also raised concerns over other forms of intimidation, which included threats of arrest, threats with sub-lethal guns, and arbitrary arrest or ticketing. Two respondents recounted being arrested while reporting.
In May 2016, Marshall and Ion Etxebarria faced a slew of criminal charges after livestreaming a protest for CUTV inside the Canada Border Services Agency office in downtown Montreal.
“I was yanked out of the room, shoved out of the building, and not told anything, not told to leave, not told that I was under arrest, so I figured okay, I’m fine,” said Marshall, who continued to film the protest from the street. “That’s when they took me back in, cuffed me, and I was charged.”
The two were charged with criminal mischief, forcible detainment and participation in an illegal protest. Marshall told Ricochet he had to provide police with his resumé and proof he worked for CUTV and was enrolled at Concordia University.
He said other reporters there were not given any trouble by police. A frequent reporter at protests at the time, Marshall said police were familiar with him and knew he was a journalist with the station.
“The cops never approached me or my colleague personally to discuss anything with us, to move out of the way, to move to the other side of the room (to avoid arrest with protestors), nothing,” he continued. “They warned everybody else personally but not us, which was part of our defence, they never actually spoke to us.”
The charges were later dropped. For Etxebarria it was the third time he faced arrest while reporting in Montreal between 2008 and 2016.
Others, like photographer Brandon Johnson, recounted being threatened with arrest. After police charged at him during a 2016 anti-austerity protest, he rushed into a burger joint to avoid trouble, he said.
“A minute later the police, the cop that was in charge, the captain I guess, he comes in and he looks at me and he says, ‘You better fucking order something, or you’re under arrest! Right now!” he said.
He said the officer claimed he was trespassing if he failed to order food, so he complied. Other respondents said they could not recall the number of times that police had pointed non-lethal guns at them because it had happened so frequently. “They’re not supposed to be aiming these weapons at people,” Van-Vliet said. “It goes to show how the police generally have a sense of impunity that’s so rooted in that they can not only brutally repress peaceful protestors but they can actively threaten journalists. That speaks to a very high disregard to the very idea of press freedom.”
Photographer Cédric Martin and another freelance journalist said they were threatened with non-lethal guns while they were covering a protest of a far-right group by anti-racist activists in Montreal on May 4, 2019.
“An officer pointed a tear gas grenade launcher at my face, at near point-blank range, and verbally threatened to shoot me. The same officer proceeded to do the same to other photographers in the crowd,” said the freelance journalist, who asked to remain anonymous.
Alex Norris, chairman of Montreal’s public security committee, declined a formal interview — though he encouraged journalists to file formal complaints if they have been assaulted or intimidated by police.
“It’s difficult for me to respond to individual cases in which wrongdoing is alleged,” he said in a phone call, as “there are already processes in place that allow those assessments to take place.”
“We don’t want to politicize individual cases either,” he continued. “But if there are problems, I am eager for them to be exposed and dealt with.”
‘Collectively protect ourselves’
A handful of the incidents disclosed to Ricochet also occurred during protests in Quebec City, in particular during anti-G7 protests in June 2018.
In one instance, a Quebec City police officer pointed a non-lethal gun at a group of a dozen journalists (including the author of this article) as they were taking photos of a fire started by protestors. Documentarian and videographer Mario Jean also documented an officer pointing a non-lethal gun at him at the same intersection.
In a report released by human rights group Amnesty International, observers of the protest made public several complaints received from journalists. Two journalists reported seeing a photographer pushed by an officer down a steep trail on Quebec City’s Plains of Abraham. Two journalists also said they had officers point non-lethal guns at them. Another told Amnesty International they were threatened with arrest for filming the arrest of a protester.
“A journalist was also provoked by the use of the sound gun at a very short distance from his face, by a police officer who deliberately turned to face the journalist during its use,” observers wrote.
“For each of the situations observed, we found nothing to indicate that the raising of each weapon could have been justified. On the contrary, observers tend to report that such behaviour was accompanied by an aggressive attitude on the part of police.”
Photographer Jérémie Gauthier-Caron also told Ricochet that police detained him along with journalists from the CBC and Agence France-Presse in an alley for 15 minutes without justification on the second day of the G7 protests.
“We tried to avoid [the officers] charging at us by making our way to an alleyway close by. They followed us to the end where another group of officers awaited us,” Gauthier-Caron said. “They kettled us and separated us from the other protestors we were with.”
Amnesty International did not mince words when concluding their report. “We want to emphasize that police officers who subjected media representatives to unacceptable and intimidating treatment violated the freedom of the press and people’s right to information.”
On Monday the Canadian Association for Journalists encouraged reporters to contact them if they’ve experienced police brutality, regardless of which country they experienced it in, noting that CBC senior correspondent Susan Orminston had recently been hit with a rubber bullet while reporting on ongoing riots in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The CAJ is monitoring reports of Canadian journalists facing issues with the police, regardless of what country they’re in. Incidents can be shared at firstname.lastname@example.org— Canadian Association of Journalists (@caj) June 1, 2020
Journalists who are covering the protests can also consult @pressfreedom's safety notes:https://t.co/YlPrewHafh pic.twitter.com/N7sERdTAYz
“There are a lot of courses for journalists about how we can protect ourselves, courses on hostile environments, how to protect yourself digitally, but those courses give the impression that the protection of journalists is an individual thing, that it’s something we have to do for ourselves. I think it’s much more important … to collectively protect ourselves,” said Etxebarria, one of the photographers Ricochet surveyed.
“I think the journalist associations, they have to collectively put pressure (on police).”