Press freedom advocates joined together on Jan. 29 to call for the dropping of criminal charges against Indigenous journalist Brandi Morin, who was arrested while covering Edmonton police’s raid on an inner city homeless tent encampment.
Morin, a former Alberta Native News contributor, was charged with obstructing a peace officer on Jan. 10 while filming the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) and City of Edmonton’s final raid of an eight-encampment sweep on assignment for the online news outlet Ricochet. If convicted, Morin could face up to two years in prison.
Ricochet senior editor Ethan Cox, who convened Monday’s press conference, said at the outset that “Brandi is by anyone’s definition one of the country’s most celebrated journalists,” citing numerous awards she’s won from various organizations in recent years.
Cox was joined by Morin and her lawyer, as well as representatives from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), Amnesty International, the Indigenous Journalists Association, Reporters Without Borders, Journalists for Human Rights and the Coalition for Women in Journalism.
Angel Ellis, chair of the Indigenous Journalists Association press freedom committee, described Morin’s as an attack on Indigenous rights.
“Storytelling is an inherent right and an integral part of our right to self-determination, which must be recognized by colonial settlers and their entities,” Ellis noted.
Morin was arrested while filming the dismantling of the Indigenous-led 95th Street and Rowland Road encampment, which had been cordoned off with police tape.
As camp elder Roy Cardinal was violently arrested and police attempted to disperse a crowd of encampment supporters, EPS Sgt. Amber Maze, a former candidate for the right-wing Wildrose Party, told Morin she had to move outside the police tape. “Too far away to film, or even really see what was happening,” Morin recalled in a Jan. 18 Ricochet story detailing her arrest.
Morin identified herself as a journalist and noted that there have been two high court rulings in Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia against police-established “exclusion zones” for journalists attempting to report on their conduct.
“I’m then grabbed and manhandled, before being cuffed by another officer and led away, paraded like a criminal in front of the TV news cameras. The cuffs were put on wrong, and I can feel a searing pain in my wrist,” Morin wrote.
“All I can think about is my five-year-old daughter, who I’m supposed to pick up from kindergarten in a couple of hours. As I’m loaded into a paddy wagon I beg the officers holding me to adjust the cuffs that are causing shooting pain.”
Her charge of obstruction doesn’t match these facts, Cox noted.
“At no time did Brandi obstruct any police officer. On the contrary, she was obstructed and then arrested while trying to film the raid. She was not in the way, she was not involved. And she should never have been removed in handcuffs, let alone charged,” he said.
Cox said he can only see “two explanations” for why Morin was targeted by Sgt. Maze — “because [Maze] recognized her and wanted to shut down reporting on these arrests by a high-profile journalist, or she didn’t recognize Brandi, but saw that she looked Indigenous and assumed that meant she was part of the predominantly Indigenous encampment.”
At the press conference, Morin noted that she had relatives call her “to tell me they saw me being arrested on TV, like a criminal.”
She said she’s “struggled with feelings of humiliation and fear about the personal and professional consequences of being convicted of a criminal offense,” but vowed not to be intimidated.
“I will not allow my arrest to silence or undermine the powerful legacy of work I have built up,” Morin said.
Morin’s lawyer, Richard Mirasty, said he still hasn’t received the Crown’s disclosure of what evidence it has to substantiate its charges against Morin and Cardinal, whom he’s also representing.
“This is not the crime of the century, so the disclosure would be minimal,” Mirasty explained. “It shouldn’t take that long.”
Reporters Without Borders releases annual international press freedom rankings. Last year, Canada ranked 15th.
Clayton Weimers, the executive director of Reporters Without Borders for Canada and the U.S., noted that this isn’t the first time Canadian authorities have criminally charged journalists on the job in recent years, referencing the RCMP’s arrest of Edmonton-based photojournalist Amber Bracken in 2021 while she covered opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline on Wet’suwet’en territory in B.C.
He said that while Canada has historically been a “global leader” regarding press freedom, criminally charging journalists for doing their jobs “puts that leadership in jeopardy.”
CAJ president Brent Jolly called the need for a press conference to call for police to drop charges against a journalist relating to them doing their job “an incredibly sad reflection on the current state of press freedom in Canada.”
“Brandi’s arrest makes an absolute mockery of the rights of freedom of the press and the ability for journalists to report on the activities of taxpayer-funded law enforcement agencies, such as the [EPS],” he added.
This is another example of a “self-imposed black eye” on Canadian law enforcement, in which they’ve “ignored, whether through ignorance or indifference, the valuable role journalists play in a free and democratic society,” Jolly said.
Katherine Jacobsen, who coordinates the CPJ’s Canada and U.S. program, said the organization’s research has found that “that arresting reporters serves as a blunt form of censorship.”
“Journalists in handcuffs cannot get their story out and, beyond an initial detention, prosecuting reporters creates a harmful chilling effect and serves as a form of intimidation for their peers. Lengthy and expensive legal processes take time away from reporters and limit their ability to cover their communities,” Jacobsen said.
Bill Killorn of Journalists for Human Rights said that journalism is a “challenging job that often puts journalists in uncomfortable or unsafe situations, especially when they are covering issues of conflict with authorities.”
Law enforcement must create a “climate of patience, cooperation and space to be given to journalists as they continue to cover this issue and other challenging issues across Canada,” Killorn said.
Kiran Nazish, with the Coalition for Women in Journalism, observed a trend of journalists covering “stories that are related to Indigenous issues and climate change” being the main targets of law enforcement suppression.
Since 2019, the coalition has documented 70 violations of press freedom for female journalists in Canada, with more than half consisting of online targeted harassment campaigns. But 17 examples, or 24 per cent, were of direct interference in reporting from law enforcement agencies.
“We do not think it is healthy for Canadian democracy to have law enforcement institutions get in the way of journalistic work,” said Nazish. “Their job is to allow journalists access and to get out of the way of independent news gathering, which is a process necessary for a democracy.”
David Matshine, who is the director of policy, advocacy and research at Amnesty International Canada, praised Morin’s “courageous, thoughtful and empathetic reporting,” calling for Edmonton police to apologize to her, in addition to dropping her charge.
The arrest of an Indigenous journalist covering an Indigenous issue “threatens Canada’s fragile progress on the road to reconciliation,” he noted.
(Disclosure: This writer is a regular Ricochet contributor.)
By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Jan 30, 2024 at 19:01