News Brief

A “Monumental Achievement” For Press Freedom

Court affirms media's right to report at Fairy Creek

On Tuesday, the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), along with several independent media organizations and freedom-of-the-press groups, declared a victory for media rights and the public interest concerning journalists’ ability to access the Fairy Creek blockades.

Linda Solomon Wood, the CEO and editor-in-chief of National Observer, said in a joint press conference with the CAJ and Ricochet that, “Looking out over the landscape in Canada today, we see so many things happening where — particularly with climate change (and other) areas where the public’s interests are at stake and where people are up against very challenging situations — it’s so important that journalists have the ability to get in there, and to bring that story back to the public.”

On April 1, a logging company, Teal Cedar Products Ltd., was granted an injunction to prohibit blockades on access roads in an old-growth forest in B.C. where Indigenous land defenders and allies have blocked roads to prevent the trees from being cut down. 

The RCMP took a broad, rather aggressive view of that injunction as it pertained to media and their ability to witness the protests and the enforcement actions against them, establishing exclusion zones the press could not enter without permission from police. The contested area is around Port Renfrew, B.C., in the traditional territory of the Ditidaht and Pacheedaht First Nations.

Representing the press coalition pro bono, lawyer Sean Hern successfully argued for a clause to be inserted into the April injunction that would instruct the RCMP to not interfere with media access at Fairy Creek. (See the full text below.)

In addition to the CAJ, the coalition backing the legal application to the B.C. Supreme Court included The Discourse, IndigiNews, Ricochet Media, Capital Daily Victoria, The Narwhal, APTN, and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. The application was filed in May after continued RCMP interference with media attempting to cover the story.

A written decision from the court will be available within 30 days. In the meantime, the presiding judge, Justice Douglas Thompson, offered comments in court that he hoped would act as guidance for the RCMP and media until the written decision is released.

Justice Thompson remarked that public access was the first concern of the Fairy Creek blockade injunction. He further stated, “I am not satisfied that geographically extensive exclusion zones, and associated access checkpoints, have been justified as reasonably necessary in order to give the police the space they need.”

The judge continued: “I exercise my discretion to make the order sought by the media consortium, on the basis that in making operational decisions and exercising its discretion surrounding the removal and arrest of persons violating the order, the RCMP will be reminded by the presence of this additional language to keep in mind the media’s special role in a free and democratic society, and the necessity of avoiding undue and unnecessary interference with the journalistic function.”

The CAJ’s Brent Jolly said at the press conference after that “there aren’t many situations where you have a David and Goliath situation and David ultimately comes out on top, so this is a really monumental achievement for this group.”

In a followup interview with Canadaland, Jolly says that “challenging the RCMP and having a judge side with us our arguments that the public’s right to know is worth fighting for is truly monumental.”

Asked where the large mainstream media outlets such as the CBC, Canadian Press, or Postmedia were in that, Jolly says, “What we heard from a lot of people behind the scenes is that there was a lot of support for [the amendment to the injunction] …I think there was a bit of trepidation at the beginning, because this was not something the CAJ has traditionally done.”

“This is a bit of a test case, and perhaps the independent media outlets were more interested and engaged, and some of the legacy players wanted to see how it played out,” says Jolly. “I have heard from a lot of people who are keen to read [the judge’s decision].”

Less than three hours prior to the ruling, Chris Young, a photojournalist working for the Canadian Press, was arrested while trying to cover the story of homeless encampments being removed in Toronto.

The new term to be added to the injunction as “3A”:

In exercising their enforcement discretion under this Order, the Police will not impede, curtail, delay, or interfere with access to any part of the Injunction Area by members of the media who are attempting to gather information and obtain photographic and video evidence for their respective publications, except where there is a bona fide Police operational rationale that requires it, and in those instances, as minimally as possible in recognition of the rights and vital role of the media in Canadian society.

The original terms of the injunction issued April 1:

Photo of Jolly adapted from the original.

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