RCMP backtracks on excluding journalists from logging protest site facing police raid

The RCMP tried to impose chaperones on journalists and limit reporters to a ‘designated area.’ We refused, and our reporters are now inside police lines.
Jerome Turner
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This morning the RCMP are set to raid a protest camp deep in the old-growth forests of Pacheedaht and Ditidaht territory, near the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. A 24-hour warning issued by police to protesters expires at 8:15 a.m. PT, and media have been invited to some sort of a staged viewing with RCMP chaperones around that time.

The RCMP operation comes after an injunction for the removal of any impediment to logging in the area was issued last month at the request of Teal-Cedar Products Ltd., a subsidiary of Teal Jones Group. The protesters are blocking key junctions on remote logging roads to protect ancient trees from loggers.

Yesterday, journalists with outlets including Ricochet, The Globe and Mail and Capital Daily Victoria were refused entry to the Caycuse camp at the heart of the impending raid.

These reporters were stopped at a police checkpoint guarding what the RCMP are calling a “temporary access control area.” It’s a rebranding exercise for their much-criticized “exclusion zone,” following court rulings and a report by their own watchdog that found the use of such broad restrictions to be unlawful and outside the authority of the police force.

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Ricochet has two journalists in the area. After learning of the exclusion zone early Monday, reporter Jerome Turner made his way back from Tofino, where he’d been conducting interviews. Michael Simkin tried to enter the area in the late afternoon and was summarily refused.

After failing to respond to our calls or emails for over seven hours, the RCMP sent a statement to media just after 5 p.m. PT yesterday inviting us all to a choreographed tour this morning that would keep reporters far away from the actual raid and unable to report fully on it.

I ask that you meet our Media Relations Officers at 7 a.m. at the March Meadows Golf Club – 10298 South Shore Road, Honeymoon Bay, BC. They will be waiting in a parking area before the road turns to gravel from paved. You will be asked to sign in with identification and contact information. Promptly at 7:15 am, you will be invited to travel to the enforcement area on McClure Forest Service Road, led by our Media Relations Officers. They will then escort you into a designated area for media.

This “invitation” from the RCMP is wholly unacceptable. Journalism can’t be done while accompanied by a police minder, or confined to “a designated area.”

When Ricochet finally reached RCMP spokesperson Chris Manseau by telephone late Monday afternoon, he took great pains to insist that the new “temporary access control area” was categorically not an exclusion zone, but reiterated that no media would be allowed access that evening.

We started working with lawyers who were kind enough to volunteer their services, confident that the legal precedent established in the case of reporter Justin Brake, which upheld the right of journalists to enter injunction zones to report on protests, and a 2019 report from the RCMP’s Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, which critiqued the force’s use of checkpoints and exclusion zones, would convince a judge that the their actions were unlawful.

The whole point of journalism is that you can’t control where we go and what we see.

In a last-ditch effort, we sent a final email to Manseau. We conceded that the force might be able to play out the clock to exclude journalists from covering the raid expected today, but promised to see them in court if Turner, who was still en route, was not admitted.

Manseau responded. “The members who are at the access control points have been made aware that Jerome may be arriving shortly. He or any other identified media will be allowed unopposed access.”

There is no cell service in most of this area, but shortly after midnight PT, Simkin — who headed back to the checkpoint when he got the news — sent a message via satellite GPS confirming both journalists passed the checkpoint and reached the camp.

A matter of press freedom

If you’re feeling some déjà vu, you’re not alone. Yesterday’s events are a near replay of what happened in 2020 when Turner, on assignment for Ricochet, sought access to the Wet’suwet’en exclusion zone in advance of the RCMP raids against land defenders opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

He was turned away then, but, after concerted pressure from press freedom groups, the RCMP allowed him access at the last minute. Alongside journalists Amber Bracken and Jesse Winter, Turner won the Canadian Association of Journalists’ highest honour for his “moral courage” in covering one of those raids from inside police lines.

We called it a media confinement zone at the time. It remains to be seen if our journalists will be likewise detained today.

As happy as we are to report that Turner and Simkin were finally able to pass through the RCMP checkpoint late last night and will cover the raid from inside the camp, we wish it wasn’t always such a gruelling struggle to secure the right of journalists to do their jobs.

During the raid at Gidimt’en last year, Turner was seized by the police as soon as they encountered him and detained for almost eight hours. We called it a media confinement zone at the time. It remains to be seen if our journalists will be likewise detained today.

Journalism and press freedom advocacy organizations have been working tirelessly to draw attention to the unlawful way that injunctions and exclusion zones have been used to bar journalists from reporting on police actions.

This is a question of policy. We’ve seen, at Wet’suwet’en and now here, what the current policy is and the shifting jargon and talking points used to justify it: Herd journalists around and keep them far from the action, using broad exclusion zones to discourage reporting on RCMP raids.

That needs to change. The whole point of journalism is that you can’t control where we go and what we see. We don’t do press tours.

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