The Narwhal non-profit environmental publication and Amber Bracken, a freelance photographer who was among those arrested and removed from a Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline construction area in November 2021, announced last week that they’re jointly suing the RCMP.
Bracken was on assignment for The Narwhal at the time and while police and CGL say Bracken did not immediately identify herself as a member of the media, the Narwhal says police knew she was a journalist. CGL dropped civil contempt charges a month later amid “ongoing concerns with respect to the fairness and approach of these individuals.”
I share CGL’s concerns in this regard. The unfortunate thing is we don’t have a governing body like in other professions to draw the line; we rely on largely undelineated standards. That leaves the word “journalism,” which implies trustworthiness and affords certain protections not afforded activists, open to appropriation by people with agendas.
Some anti-vaccine mandate protesters did the same in Ottawa more recently, with convoy supporters calling themselves “journalists” in online propaganda campaigns.
Explaining why they’re drawing the issue out further, Narwhal publisher Emma Gilchrist cited freedom of the press protections under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adding that their cause is for all journalists.
“In filing this lawsuit, our goal is to clear a path for all journalists in Canada to do their work without risk of police interference,” she wrote. Gilchrist says they want to “establish meaningful consequences for police” when they “interfere with the rights of journalists covering events in injunction zones.”
I’m reminded that right-wing outlet Rebel News “reporter” David Menzies also sued police in 2021 after an encounter with Justin Trudeau’s bodyguards. Rebel likewise made a branded appeal for public support. The Narwhal and Rebel are part of the same problem and their behaviour under the banner of journalism affects all of us.
The Gidimt’en Checkpoint protesters, under whose auspices Bracken was staying when she was caught in the dragnet, also have some clear branding requirements for media wishing to access their camp.
“All media requests must be sent to Jennifer Wickham, through email or phone. All reporting must centre, prioritize, and uplift Wet’suwet’en voices and sovereignty,” reads the media protocol.
“News reporting focusing on or using non-Wet’suwet’en voices… must FIRST be approved by Jennifer Wickham [a protest organizer]. Failure to respect Media Protocol could result in being banned from reporting on Wet’suwet’en stories.”
Bracken and the Narwhal have said that they did not agree to any such policy, however, I believe it was unlikely that they would have been allowed to stay with the protesters had they not.
For journalists, who are not activists, requirements like the above are a red line we don’t cross, because that would go against standards of objectivity and responsible reporting. Activism work has its own place in the world outside of journalism.
The Narwhal and Bracken say their lawsuit is for all of us, and I agree with that. My hope is the presiding court will provide some clarity to these activists, and to audiences, on what makes journalism protectable under the charter.
Perhaps it’s time that journalism developed an official code of practice so a journalist is easily identified as following those practices in their interactions.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to remove a previous reference that photojournalist Amber Bracken is an activist, as well as reference to a claim made in a podcast that suggested The Narwhal intentionally excluded the CBC from its lawsuit. It has also been updated to reflect that The Narwhal and Bracken have stated they did not agree to any protocol.
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