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Harassment, threats to journalists during protests are dangerous, say experts

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WATCH: Vitriol, threats against journalists arise amid disruptive convoy protests – Feb 7, 2022

In a video from Ottawa, a broadcaster stares at the camera in silence as protesters surround him and scream expletives, calling him a liar and bellowing “freedom.”

Near the U.S. border in Surrey, B.C., a cameraman’s equipment is shoved off his shoulder and two men spit on him. A demonstrator follows another journalist closely, yelling that he is a “disgusting, filthy human being,” while police escort the reporter through a jeering crowd.

Experts and advocates say the treatment of journalists, captured in many cases on video, during recent protests against public health measures should be a wake-up call.

“What I’ve seen over the last two days has been absolutely sickening,” Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, said in an interview Sunday.

“This is what happens when you have brains scrambled by misinformation.”

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Read more: Misinformation megaphone: Does news coverage of unscientific, hateful rhetoric amplify it?

Journalists are working in an unprecedented difficult situation in Canada right now, he said, with threats being hurled at the press both online and in person.

The degree of hostility and the targets put on journalists’ backs are especially concerning, and the psychological consequences can be significant, he said.

Fixing the problem will require a long-term solution that involves a multipronged approach. Newsroom organizations need to beef up security, digital training and protections. Social media companies should be reviewing the role they play in facilitating a “toxic sludge of discourse,” he said, while police consider whether their plans and enforcement are appropriate for a digital world.

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Government also has a role to play and Jolly urged Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez to take seriously the responsibility outlined in his mandate letter to combat serious forms of harmful online content.

While footage of the attacks is important to document what happened, there’s also a danger it will galvanize further abuse among those who believe they will face impunity, he warned.

“We need to take this as a lesson,” Jolly said. “I think we got lucky that nothing worse happened.”

Jolly is not alone in raising alarm over attacks on press freedom.

Read more: Surrey, B.C. border crossing open again, but questions remain over repeated blockades

Josh Greenberg, director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communications, said the tenor and tone of the protests resemble those in the United States and some European countries in recent years.

Most reporters will say they have been on the receiving end of accusations and hate, but Greenberg said something has changed.

“The level of vitriol directed at the media in particular, which has been at a slow boil under the surface and invisible, has certainly surfaced and become highly visible,” he said.

Interactions posted online tend to involve white male reporters and Greenberg questioned what the consequences might be for young, female reporters who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour.

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“Younger BIPOC female reporters experience significantly more vitriol than their white male journalist counterparts do,” he said.

Greenberg called for a pause to consider the risks to Canada’s democracy when threats are directed at those whose job it is to report on its twists and turns.

Paul Knox, a retired journalism professor at Ryerson University, echoed his concern for non-white, non-male journalists.

The impact can be more severe when attacks focus on a journalist’s identity characteristics and raises concern that it may push some who already belong to under-represented groups to leave the industry.

There has been a decline in trust of news media over the past 20 or 30 years but it’s not universal, he added.

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“There is still a pretty good core of people that realize a lot of what news reporters do is essential, that it’s valuable and that the people who do it are doing it because they feel that’s what they were put on Earth to do,” Knox said.

“All of the anger and hate that we’re seeing against individual journalists is really misplaced and corrosive.”

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