If a reporter impersonates a cop to get a story, someone’s going to jail and I can tell you it’s going to be the dipstick journo who’s going to be wearing orange.
If a cop impersonates a reporter to get the inside scoop on a native protest or to build a case against a criminal, well, okay then.
That’s the consensus of an appeals court judge who denied an application by media outlets to have courts declare such sneaky behaviour a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
We learned two OPP officers posed as journalists during the ill-fated Ipperwash protest in 1995, an OPP officer posed as a reporter when activist Shawn Brant and others blockaded rail lines and Highway 401 during the 2007 Aboriginal Day of Action and another provincial officer posed as a writer to get details from a criminal in a murder investigation.
It’s all evidence of a deplorable abuse of the system of trust journalists and sources must develop in sensitive cases whereby the very safety of a journalist doing his or her job is at stake. In some cases, journalists have been threatened and put in harm’s way at some of these protests and the whiff of suspicion that one among us might be a cop could just tip a tense situation to one of violence, at worst, or prevent journalists from getting the story and doing their jobs.
During the court application, which was recently ruled upon by Ontario Superior Justice Benjamin Glustein, the media outlets including the CBC, Journalists for Free Expression and the body representing TV and radio news directors argued that such actions violate the Constitution by creating a chilling effect on freedom of the press. The deceptive practice, the journalists argued, could threaten their work because it might cause suspicion about who they really are. It could also make it more difficult for reporters to earn the trust of sources, meaning they might lose out on getting vital information in the public interest, the groups argued, it was reported in The Toronto Star.
“The case is about what impact this has on the public and sources for the media sources who are, by definition, in conflict with the law and reluctant to speak with police officers,” said Philip Tunley, the lawyer representing the media group.
In the Ipperwash case, two OPP officers working for the outfit they called “United Press Associates” video-taped protesters at Ipperwash Provincial Park in the incident that culminated in the shooting death by police of protester Dudley George.
In the case of the 2007 protest at Tyendinaga, your correspondent – who has covered his share of native demonstrations on the territory and is all too well-known to Brant and his confreres – was safely piloting a desk in the office as city editor.
But, our guys were on the scene in the midst of the the protest and they described it as one minute free-flowing and co-operative, the next tense and confrontational. Unbeknownst to them, one in their midst – and there was indeed a media horde there that day, as the country’s busiest highway and the main CN Rail line were blocked for long periods – was a police spy. We now know Julian Fantino was behind many the shenanigans that stirred up tension between protesters and police on this day, operating as a charge-in from HQ bull to take over the activities and even openly taunted Brant by cell phone that day, throwing gasoline on the fire that was mouldering in the protest.
It may well have been Cowboy Julian cooked up this idea of sending in a rogue cop/report, but there’s not been any proof of that and the cop who did the subterfuge testified he acted as a lone undercover wolf without authorization or knowledge of superiors that he was going into the jaws of the protest with a video camera.
Getting back to this past week’s court decision, to now know courts refuse to support journalists in pursuing our craft in a safe and productive manner, without suspicion that someone in the ranks may indeed by a cop in disguise, is more than troubling. It’s an outrage.
To the average Joe or Jane, it’s “Hey, quit your whining. Who do youse reporters think you are? If a cop can use a little bit of funny stuff to get the bad guys, who cares whose rights get trampled?”
I get that sentiment. We all do. But, if police expect they can move among us, as one of us in covering a situation that could get a lot of people hurt or killed, where’s the decency in that?
We know from the original revelation that cops were pretending to be reporters, back in 2007 at the trial for Brant, that the OPP used a spy journalist/cop to take video at Tyendinaga and on Highway 401.
Const. Steve Martell testified then that he pretended to be a journalist on the evening of June 28, 2007, and got so close to the barricades that he recognized some protesters’ faces.
“You were acting in an undercover capacity, as you’ve told us, and you had a video camera,” Brant’s defence lawyer, Peter Rosenthal, asked him during his appearance in a Napanee court. “What were you pretending to be?”
“I just pretended to be part of the media,” Martell replied.
Martell told the court it was his idea to pose as a cameraman and he did not discuss the plan with a superior officer.
When Rosenthal asked whether the OPP had any guidelines for undercover officers as to what roles they can or cannot play when they are undercover, Martell testified that officers are instructed only to refrain from illegal activity.
“So, as role-wise, there’s no real guidelines,” Brant’s lawyer said. “But isn’t there a concern that if officers pretend to be media, that might interfere with freedom of the press in some sense? Have you ever heard any such concern?” Rosenthal asked.
“No,” Martell answered.
Well, no, because, you know, hey, it’s just the media. Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing that damages relationships between not only protesters and the journalists who are tasked to move among them to report on a story, but between police and the journalists who often work closely with those very police agencies on a daily basis, most often in a co-operative fashion.
For the courts to offer no protection against such abuses in future, it spells a dark chapter for journalists who have to go into often dangerous, hair-trigger situations knowing that anyone among them could be the spark that sets things off on a very bad road.
That and the simple, stark fact that it’s an outrageous abuse of freedom of the press at its very core.http://www.intelligencer.ca/2015/08/13/ ... ss-freedom