The RCMP has reversed their position and committed to not detaining, removing or arresting journalists reporting on their activities during ongoing raids on Wet’suwet’en camps in northern B.C.

RCMP spokesperson Chris Manseau sent an email acknowledging press freedom concerns late last night.

“The RCMP has implemented an advancing enforcement line that will allow media to move forward, once security concerns have been met,” wrote Manseau.

“Portions of this road have man-made hazards that must be removed before anyone can enter the area. For media personnel already ahead of the advancing police line, they can continue to observe and report, but without interfering with police enforcement required to implement the order of the British Columbia Supreme Court.”

It’s a major victory for press freedom in Canada.

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Yesterday morning the RCMP detained two journalists and later released them far from the scene during the police raid on the Wet’suwet’en camp at the 39-kilometre mark of the Morice Forest Service Road. Ricochet then received an email from the RCMP saying they would arrest journalist Jerome Turner, who is reporting from inside the Gidimt’en checkpoint, for doing his job and reporting on police actions.

“Currently your reporter is within the exclusion zone,” wrote spokesperson Janelle Shoihet, “and subject to all the same restrictions as anyone else within the zone. Your reporter will be given the opportunity to leave on his own accord … or be subject to arrest. Currently he is in violation of the exclusion zone.”

This move set off a firestorm of criticism of the police force for its lack of respect for press freedom.

Unlawful detention of journalists

The RCMP is enforcing a B.C. court injunction granted to pipeline company Coastal GasLink to allow its workers access to unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. Police officers are clearing Wet’suwet’en people and supporters from camps and homes in the area.

There are three main Wet’suwet’en camps in the path of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The first, at the 39-kilometre mark of the only road leading into the area, was raided yesterday before dawn.

Vice’s Jesse Winter and a U.S.-based video journalist were there when the raid happened. Rather than being allowed to report freely on police actions, they were detained by the RCMP and prevented from photographing tactical officers and removed from the area.

As Vice staffers set about raising the alarm about the treatment of their journalist, emergency meetings were happening in a handful of small newsrooms across the country. Ricochet’s Jerome Turner was embedded at the second of the three camps, Gidimt’en checkpoint, and The Narwhal’s Amber Bracken and The Tyee’s Amanda Follett Hosgood were at the Unist’ot’en camp. Home to a healing centre for over a decade, Unist’ot’en is the third and final camp on the road.

Would these journalists, who had crossed the RCMP roadblock under journalistic accreditation, now face arrest when the RCMP raided the camps they were reporting from?

Starting around 6 a.m. PT, editors with Ricochet started calling and emailing RCMP press officers to seek clarity on whether our journalist faced arrest or detention for doing his job.
For ten long hours we left message after message, and sent email after email, to every publicly available phone number and email address. Radio silence.

RCMP threaten to arrest journalists

By late afternoon we were deeply concerned about our journalist, and other outlets with journalists in the area had similar concerns. So we called the press relations staff for Mike Farnworth, who is British Columbia’s solicitor general and minister of public safety. They told us they would reach out to the RCMP and ask them to respond to us.

Shortly thereafter, around 4 p.m. PT, we got an email from RCMP spokesperson Janelle Shoihet stating that Turner would be treated the same as anyone else in the injunction zone, and arrested if he insisted on doing his job and reporting from the area.

We shared the statement on social media and published two articles documenting the saga. The Canadian Association of Journalists and B.C. Civil Liberties Association issued statements denouncing the RCMP’s actions, editors at a number of outlets complained publicly and started talking privately about a joint statement, and tweets to B.C. Premier John Horgan, Attorney General Dave Eby and Farnworth circulated widely on social media.

Meanwhile, we retained a B.C.-based criminal defence lawyer in case Turner was arrested and a well-known constitutional lawyer in Ottawa to advise us on a potential lawsuit against the RCMP. We informed the RCMP that we had legal advice that their conduct was illegal, unconstitutional and an invitation to a lawsuit, and that we intended to defend Turner’s rights vigorously.

Late last night several editorial level calls were scheduled for this morning between outlets to coordinate on a joint statement. Thankfully, those calls never happened.

The RCMP blinks

Shortly before 10 p.m. PT we received the email from Manseau stating that police would not arrest, detain or otherwise interfere with journalists behind police lines, so long as these journalists did not interfere with “police enforcement.”

“It is a relief to see the RCMP recognizing that there are laws that protect journalists,” Karyn Pugliese, Canadian Association of Journalists president, told Ricochet this morning.

“Yesterday’s behaviour defied everything Canadians value about free expression. The RCMP needs to take a hard look at the behaviour of its officers and implement whatever discipline or training is necessary to prevent future incidents.”