Press freedom advocates are condemning the restrictions imposed on journalists covering the eviction of unhoused people from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside on Wednesday.
The Vancouver Police Department, tasked with overseeing the safety of the tent removal process, tweeted at the start of the operation that “limited public access” would be in effect, including the corralling of journalists into an exclusion zone at Columbia and East Hastings street.
A single camera would be allowed to move freely, police said, filming on behalf of all media outlets and sharing the footage — a “pool camera,” as it’s called in the industry.
Press freedom advocates said Wednesday police have no right to restrict journalists to a single pool camera or determine which media outlet gets to film, nor do they have the right to restrict journalist movement in a public place, particularly without an injunction order.
“They’re just simply telling journalists they can’t come through and that should concern us,” said El Jones, senior fellow with the Centre for Free Expression and an assistant professor in the Department of Political and Canadian Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.
“What are they doing that they don’t want journalists to see?”
Courts have ruled that police should not set up ‘exclusion zones’ that prevent journalist access, as journalists should decide what is newsworthy, according to a legal guide on the rights of journalists in Canada published by the Committee To Protect Journalists and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“(Journalists) should not be prevented from pursuing stories by police, so long as they are not interfering with police duties,” it states.
Jones expressed grave concern about the safety of vulnerable groups, including Indigenous and unhoused people, who don’t have a press pass to protect them — and for a brief period on Wednesday morning — an unfettered cohort of journalists there to film and fulfill their role as watchdogs.
Without unrestricted access, Jones said a journalist’s ability to tell both sides of the story is limited, and in many cases, has resulted in overreliance on the police narrative of events.
Asked about the restrictions at Wednesday press conference, Vancouver Police Chief Const. Adam Palmer did not offer an explanation.
“There’s lots of people down there with smartphones taking video, and all kinds of coverage right now with mainstream media and also social media,” he said.
“So it’s just not opened up as a free for all where 50 people can come in with television cameras, but there is a pool camera set up there and you can monitor what’s going on.”
The police department’s spokesperson, Sgt. Steve Addison, later said the exclusion zone between Columbia and East Hastings was in effect for less than an hour in total, and it was necessary for “everybody’s safety and privacy,” as the area was full of moving police cars and trucks.
“Large trucks moving around, deploying, heavy machinery, police cars, lots of vehicles moving around blocking off the street — we simply weren’t going to create a situation we couldn’t control,” he told Global News.
Addison said all interested journalists were permitted to roam and film freely, “once we had control of the area,” including the Global News crew that had early access as the designated pool camera. Early access was also granted to other outlets, including The Canadian Press and a CBC reporter, he added.
“If you’re suggesting that there was an effort to restrict visibility or restrict transparency, it’s absolutely not the case … we wanted to get people in so they could see.”
Addison did not cite any specific legal provision that allowed police to dictate when journalists must use a pool camera in a public place, but said the VPD’s “responsibility was to create a safe space.”
Asked what legal justification existed for barring journalists from filming on the sidewalk — a safe distance from moving vehicles –even very briefly in the morning, he said:
“I think I’ve answered that question.”
Police restriction of journalist movement during the removal of tent encampments has taken place before.
In July 2021, Toronto Police blocked several journalists from accessing Trinity Bellwoods Park as it was cleared of temporary structures. They also arrested The Canadian Press photographer Chris Young for trespassing while he covered the story, and later released him without charges.
In August, police also threatened Halifax journalists with arrest if they did not move from an elevated platform where they were filming the dissembling of tents and structures.
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Given that Vancouver reporters were allowed free movement and access within in an hour, Canadian Association of Journalists president Brent Jolly said the Vancouver police’s brief exclusion zone created “additional chaos” when it was “completely unwarranted and unneeded in the first place.”
“I think what we’re seeing here is almost a normalizing of restrictions of public access in a public place,” he said in a Wednesday interview.
“They used the typical words, ‘safety’ and ‘privacy’ to limit public access, but those, nowadays, are such meaningless words that’s it’s sort of a euphemism for ‘no journalists allowed.'”
Jolly said many journalists are experienced in covering large protests and conflicts, and can be trusted to handle themselves responsibly, safely and ethically in a dynamic situation like an encampment removal.
Jones further added that demanding a pool camera as a condition of early coverage puts journalists in a compromising position where they have to choose between access to a critical public interest story and their ethics.
“All press has the right to access these spaces and to document, so that is a worrying tactic,” she said.
Whether one agrees with the removal of tents on East Hastings Street or not, she said people must support the freedom of the press to cover that event without limitation “as a bedrock democratic principle.”