Following the Toronto G20 protests last June, four journalists filed complaints with the Office of Independent Police Review Director, Ontario’s police watchdog. The complaints by Amy Miller, Daniel McIsaac, Jesse Rosenfeld and Lisa Walter include allegations of physical assaults, verbal abuse, gender discrimination and threats of sexual violence by Toronto police. All four journalists, now known as the ‘Free Press 4’ group, claim that they did not break any laws and that police knew that they were journalists.
Miller was threatened with gang rape and police allegedly told her that she would never want to “act” as a journalist again after they were done with her. Rosenfeld was physically beaten several times when police mistook him for someone else and kept punching him even though he was not resisting arrest. Walter was thrown to the ground and arrested, called a “f-ing dyke” and a “douche bag”, handcuffed with plastic ties for 13 hours, denied her medication for nine and segregated in the G20’s makeshift prison for possibly being a queer. As well, her video camera’s hard drive had been erased and the memory card had been confiscated. McIsaac was also assaulted and arrested.
The scale of physical violence and intimidation against these reporters appears to be unprecedented in Canadian history. The Committee to Protect Journalists, which keeps a record of violations against journalists and suppression of the freedom of the press, does not have any incidents in its files that resemble what took place at the G20. The lawyers representing the Free Press 4 are not aware of such extreme policing actions in Canada’s history either.
Certainly, journalists in Canada have been barred, inconvenienced and threatened with danger from doing their job in the past. However, it is unheard of for police to intimidate, harass, arrest and abuse without any warning and at the drop of a hat.
The incident that comes closest to this is the Oka Crisis of 1990, a land dispute between the Mohawks and the town of Oka, Quebec. In addition to seizing footage of a confrontation between the Mohawks and police, the Canadian Armed Forces erected a razor wire perimeter which journalists were prevented from crossing. The perimeter was intended to isolate the Mohawks. However, journalists were trapped inside the perimeter as well and the police barred the supply of notebooks, tapes and batteries into the perimeter. The flow of food and other essential supplies was also limited thereby endangering the journalists’ health. The Canadian Association of Journalists described the censorship as “one of the worst attacks ever on the Canadian public’s right to know.
While the police tried to manipulate what the journalists could report and how well they could report, intimidations were never as overt as seen during the G20 summit, nor was there any physical violence, verbal abuse or discrimination.
Jackie Esmonde, one of the lawyers advocating for the Free Press 4, highlights the fact that all the members of the Free Press 4 are reporters for alternative media. When police saw their alternative media accreditation, they essentially told them that they did not consider them to be real journalists, that their accreditation was “garbage” or “fake” and that they should get “real” jobs. “These are new forms of media. It’s of concern that they are not seen as legitimate especially since media and ways of reporting are changing. These new frontiers serve a very important function and there has to be protection for that,” says Esmonde.
There are reports of several other journalists, many of whom work for alternative media, who faced the same fate as the Free Press 4. The experience of CTV field producer Farzad Fatholahzadeh, also arrested during the summit, is slightly different. Once police realized who they had arrested, they fast-tracked his release and dropped the charges.
So, what does all this mean for Canadian society as a democracy?
“It’s fundamental to democracy that the public has information about the state. Journalists and media are essential to that,” says Esmonde. On the other hand, Neil Thomlinson, an associate professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, offers a different perspective.
“Freedom of the press is important so that journalists are able to do their job. However, I don’t think anybody should have the responsibility to ensure that journalists are able to do their job,” says Thomlinson who feels very strongly that journalists do not have a higher calling. “What happened is that they got treated the same as everybody else. The point is nobody should be treated that way.”
Thomlinson says that Canadians have a dangerously complacent attitude in believing that such victimization by the police is always somebody else’s problem until they themselves get arrested.
“It is this attitude that elects a government that can trample over citizen’s rights that are already included in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The current federal government does not respect these rights. We need to change this attitude. ”
In the meantime, Ontario’s police watchdog is conducting a systemic review of policing during the G20 summit. The Office of Independent Review Director was created in October 2009 as an arms-length agency reporting to the Attorney-General. The review is significant because a systemic review of policing has never been done before. Typically, when the Director’s Office receives a complaint against Toronto police, they forward the complaint to Toronto Police Services who deal with the complaints on an individual basis and then report their results to the Director’s Office.
It is not known how long it will take the Office to review the complaints. Esmonde says they appear to be moving as fast as they can. She says,
“Our hope is that there will be recommendations not only addressing the policing at G20, but there needs to be acknowledgement of alternate media.”