Savanna Craig stayed up until dawn the first three nights after she was arrested.

Craig, a journalist, was detained while covering a protest. For a reporter to be detained while covering a protest isn’t unheard of in Canada, but they are usually released after identifying themselves as press. Sometimes, police even apologize for the inconvenience. 

But that’s not what happened this time.

The 27-year-old journalist was arrested on April 15 while covering a sit-in at the Scotiabank on McGill College Ave. Now, in what may be a first for the city, Montreal police are pursuing a charge of criminal mischief against her. It is the same charge facing 44 protesters who staged the sit-in to protest Scotiabank’s investment in Elbit — an Israeli defence contractor that is profiting from the war on Gaza.

If convicted, Craig could face up to two years in prison, be prevented from travelling outside of Canada and see her career go up in smoke just as it’s beginning. And while her lawyer says a conviction is unlikely, Craig is still having a hard time coping.

“Those first few nights, I just laid in bed and ruminated until 5 a.m.,” said Craig, who was on assignment for a Montreal-based outlet called Community University Television. “Could I have done anything differently? What’s going to happen to me? It’s scary to think where this could go.”

A journalist’s worst nightmare

Craig was tipped off about an action taking place at the Scotiabank across from McGill University on April 15. That morning, a few dozen protesters marched into the bank and formed a human chain between customers and bank tellers. They wanted to raise awareness about Scotiabank being the largest non-Israeli investor in Elbit, a contractor accused of making cluster munitions — which are banned globally under the terms of a 2008 treaty signed by over 100 countries. 

When police arrived at the scene, Craig says she immediately flashed a press badge provided by her outlet and identified herself as a journalist to officers at the scene. But she did not leave the area since she was documenting a news event and not participating in the protest.

After some back and forth with the police, Craig was rounded up with the rest of the protesters, processed in a room provided by Scotiabank (typically arrestees are taken to a police station for processing, but, in an unusual move, the bank offered police the use of their offices) and informed she would likely be charged with criminal mischief under $5,000.

“It’s hard to see this as anything else but intimidation. Canadians have a right to know what people are protesting about and, as a reporter, it’s Savanna’s job to be there on the ground. It makes no difference if she works for the Montreal Gazette or CUTV — a journalist is a journalist.” 

Craig’s arrest has been denounced by the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Coalition for Women in Journalism, and the Committee to Protect Journalists — the leading international advocacy group for the rights of reporters. 

CAJ President Brent Jolly said Craig’s arrest is part of a broader crackdown on journalists who cover police actions critically.

“It’s hard to see this as anything else but intimidation,” Jolly said. “Canadians have a right to know what people are protesting about and, as a reporter, it’s Savanna’s job to be there on the ground. It makes no difference if she works for the Montreal Gazette or CUTV — a journalist is a journalist. 

“Arresting Savanna for doing her job is more than just an attack on her fundamental rights. It’s an attack on our right to a free press. It’s an attack on democracy.”

As a matter of protocol, the Montreal police say they do not comment on cases that may go before the courts. 

“In our administration, freedom of the press is obviously essential in any circumstance,” Mayor Valérie Plante’s office writes in a statement to Ricochet and The Rover. “We will let (Montreal police) conduct their investigation to determine what happened with Miss Craig during the protest at Scotiabank.”

Sources also confirmed that Andrés Fontecilla, a Montreal-area MNA with Québec Solidaire and public safety critic for the second opposition party, has written a letter to the provincial minister and Montreal police requesting an explanation for the arrest of a journalist. 

The Montreal police have an especially aggressive relationship with the press. In 2016 they were caught spying on a prominent journalist’s cell phone, and in that same year seized the laptop of a different journalist, only returning it three years later after a court battle. 

A troubling trend

This is the second time this year that police in Canada have attempted to have a reporter criminally charged for doing their job. Brandi Morin was arrested in January while covering a police raid on an Indigenous unhoused encampment in Edmonton for Ricochet Media. 

After filming the interaction between police and camp residents without incident for about 10 minutes, police abruptly ordered her to leave the area once arrests began, directing her outside of an “exclusion zone” set up to limit their visibility as they dismantled the encampment. Morin identified herself as a journalist, and protested that she would not be able to do her job from so far away. 

Within moments she was being aggressively pushed and manhandled, as police handcuffed her and led her away.

Morin was processed, charged with criminal mischief and had those charges dangled in front of her for two months before they were finally dropped. Her case drew international condemnation, and was covered in national and international outlets including The Guardian in the U.K. and The Globe and Mail

“I got the sense they were trying to make an example out of me,” said Morin, who is an award-winning journalist whose bylines have appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, APTN as well as Ricochet Media and many others. 

“For two months, I went through hell. Because it’s this whole process of being criminalized. It was just this dark cloud hanging over me, which impeded me from doing my work.

“It made me question my whole career. Because I’m a mom and to be convicted and have that criminal record and everything that goes with it, that affects my ability to feed my family. It makes you question whether you should even try to keep the police accountable. I was sad to find out that Savanna’s going through this too. It’s an attack on her, but it’s also an attack on all of us.”

Even court orders have failed to change police behaviour

This wasn’t Morin’s first brush with police. In 2021 and 2022 she was interfered with and obstructed from doing her job by the RCMP while covering Indigenous protests on Wet’suwet’en territory and at Fairy Creek in British Columbia — she would go on to win national awards for her coverage of both stories. 

In 2021, a coalition of seven outlets led by the Canadian Association of Journalists took the force to court and won a court order requiring them to provide better access to media at Fairy Creek. 

“I got the sense they were trying to make an example out of me. For two months, I went through hell. Because it’s this whole process of being criminalized. It was just this dark cloud hanging over me, which impeded me from doing my work.

During that hearing, the RCMP introduced a sworn affidavit from one of their officers making false claims about Brandi. Thankfully, she had recorded the entire interaction in question and that recording was submitted as a rebuttal, causing the judge to throw out the officer’s testimony. But it was shocking to her that a police officer would so brazenly misrepresent her actions. 

Other Indigenous journalists like Jerome Turner and Karl Dockstadter have found themselves detained, in one case at gunpoint, while reporting on Indigenous protests in recent years. And in perhaps the most high-profile case before Brandi’s arrest, World Press Photo of the Year-winning photojournalist Amber Bracken was arrested alongside a freelancer working for the CBC in 2021 when police raided a protest camp at Wet’suwet’en. She was on assignment for The Narwhal at the time. 

Bracken was held in police custody for four days, and it took almost a week before her belongings were returned and her photos of this highly-newsworthy event could be published. Charges were quietly dropped a month later, but Bracken is now suing the RCMP. 

In cases like those of Bracken and Morin, the charges are always dropped before they get to court — because the case law against arresting journalists in this country is airtight. 

But the reporters still had to mount legal defences and spend countless hours fundraising for lawyers and advocating for themselves before their charges got dropped. 

Savanna Craig | Photo by Isaac Wylde

“These charges never stick because there’s no legal precedent that makes it okay for police to do this,” Jolly said. “Police know this, or at least they should know this. Instead, we’re seeing journalists getting arrested when they cover things in a way that police don’t like. That’s not how this works, police don’t get to dictate the way they’re covered.”

The problem, Jolly explains, is that these arrests create a chilling effect on all journalists. Leaving them afraid to assert their rights when covering stories that involve the police, even though such charges aren’t likely to make it before a judge. Which may well be the point of the exercise. 

Craig’s arrest has been largely ignored by Quebec and Canada’s political class. In fact, days after she was arrested, Liberal Member of Parliament Anthony Housefather tweeted that police need to crack down harder on pro-Palestinian protests.

Craig Sauve, a city councillor in Montreal’s sud-ouest, told Ricochet and The Rover that he thinks many politicians aren’t aware of the case, and hopes more media attention will bring them off the sidelines. 

“We must ensure that journalists can do their work without fear of reprisal or arrest. When a journalist demonstrates they’re on the job, police must respect that. I think it is imperative that this charge against Ms Craig be dropped. It is essential to the healthy working of our democracy that journalists are able to provide information to the public. They must be able to do so unimpeded, and free from intimidation.” 

For Craig, who has been covering protests against the war on Gaza for months, more police repression is a scary thought.

“Of course it makes you question your safety and it makes you paranoid about how far police might go in the future,” she said. “I really just want to do my job. That’s it.”