RCMP officers arrested photojournalist Colin Smith, who was on assignment for Victoria Buzz covering protests against old-growth logging near Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island on Aug. 10, 2021.
As RCMP officers began arresting land defenders, Smith told police he was a journalist, reported Victoria Buzz.
“It doesn’t matter,” an officer can be heard saying in a video of the arrest, as other media workers identify Smith as a journalist and protest as he is arrested.
An RCMP officer, who Smith identified as the commanding officer, grabbed Smith’s camera straps and pulled him. Two officers then arrested him.
In the video, police can be heard pushing other journalists and telling them to move back after Smith is arrested. “If you don’t listen, you’ll be arrested,” one officer can be heard saying.
“Despite Smith having identified himself as media, officers seized his backpack, drone, and two professional grade cameras, and detained him in the back of a police van,” wrote the Canadian Association of Journalists in an Aug. 13 statement.
Police released Smith after about an hour and fifteen minutes, reported Victoria Buzz. He was not charged. Police returned Smith’s gear, except for his drone.
Smith told Victoria Buzz that police denied him access to the area around the protest when he tried to return to get his drone.
“I’ve been documenting the situation for two months, and some of these officers know me. When I tried to get my drone back, they escorted me, and my arresting officer looked for it, but they wouldn’t just let me look for it on my own,” Smith told Victoria Buzz. He was able to recover his drone after the incident, he said.
The RCMP arrested Smith a day after the B.C. Supreme Court published written reasons for a July 20, 2021 decision that required police to give access to media covering the protests, unless there was a “genuine operational or safety reason” to bar journalists.
In a press release on Aug. 12, 2021, B.C. RCMP said they were aware of the decision, but that they believed it did not prevent officers from enforcing a “temporary exclusion zone.” In the statement, the RCMP said police would continue to “adhere to the court’s guidance with regard to journalist and public access.”
This incident took place during protests against old-growth logging on southern Vancouver Island, on the territory of the Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations, between Aug. 9, 2020 and Sept. 28, 2021.
Police enforcement, arrests, and most media coverage of the blockades took place after logging company Teal-Jones obtained an injunction from the B.C. Supreme Court on April 1, 2021, which banned blockades of logging activities in the Fairy Creek and Caycuse watersheds.
By Aug. 2021, the Fairy Creek blockades and protests were approaching the record for the largest act of civil disobedience in Canada’s history, reported The Narwhal.
Concerns over press freedoms arose during police enforcement in 2021 due to numerous incidents where media workers were denied access to raid sites, intimidated and arrested by the RCMP.
On May 26, 2021, the Canadian Association of Journalists and a coalition of news organizations and press freedom groups, including Ricochet Media, The Narwhal, Capital Daily, Canada’s National Observer, APTN, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, The Discourse and IndigiNews, said they planned to take the RCMP to court over excessive restrictions on media.
The court ruled in their favour on July 20, 2021, with B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas Thompson affirming media rights by adding a clause to the injunction instructing the RCMP not to interfere with press access unless there was a clear and genuine operational reason to do so.
Despite the court order, RCMP officers continued to restrict media access. Police arrested a Victoria Buzz photojournalist and seized his equipment at the main Fairy Creek blockade on Aug. 10, 2021, and threatened to arrest media workers or refused to allow them through police lines on multiple occasions after the ruling.
On Sept. 28, 2021, a B.C. Supreme Court justice refused to extend the initial injunction, saying RCMP enforcement of the order “led to serious and substantial infringement of civil liberties, including impairment of the freedom of the press to a marked degree.”
On Jan. 26, 2022, the B.C. Court of Appeal reinstated and extended the injunction to Sept. 26, 2022.
The B.C. Supreme Court later extended the injunction again until Sept. 26, 2023. In that decision, Justice Thompson reiterated his earlier criticism of the RCMP’s media obstruction, noting that the RCMP’s “expansive exclusion zones, and associated checkpoints and searches, were unlawful, and that the degree of interference with liberties of members of the public and the media was substantial and serious.”