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This is one of a series of features, news articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. To read more about the conference and local news, visit:  localnews.journalism.ryerson.ca.

By SIERRA BEIN
Staff reporter

Journalists interview police at a crime scene in Québec. (Photo courtesy GRC – RCMP – DIVISION C – QUÉBEC, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The first time Kim Bolan received a death threat was in 1997, but over the years she has received many. A single gunshot through her home’s window on an early December morning was a reminder that any job as a crime journalist is a 24-hour commitment. The bullet, intended as a message to Bolan to stop sticking her nose in Vancouver’s organized crime scene, was the first threat she received during her career. In 2009 she received a dead rat in the mail with a note attached saying she would be killed if she did not stop reporting on gangs in the region.

In May, Bolan wrote a story about a court trial she attended, where she was the subject in the hearing. A member of British Columbia’s United Nations gang  – now a Crown witness – testified that gang members had been plotting to kill Bolan because of her reporting on their organization. Their name has been withheld under a publication ban.

“Obviously it’s a bit disturbing to be sitting there in court and hearing these details,” Bolan said. The gang members, who had allegedly discussed killing Bolan back in 2011, had her address and had been scouting her property. She was the only reporter in the courtroom covering the story, knowing police would not release the details of the charge and that the courts would only mention the attempt on her life in their final ruling.

For crime journalists, dealing with police is a daily part of the job. But recently, reporters like Bolan have been increasingly pushing back against police in Canada, who they say are withholding more and more information about crime cases. In some instances, reporters are putting their lives on the line to get stories out to the public.

“Half the time they don’t have a specific [law] that’s really about withholding – it’s just a broad interpretation that I would argue isn’t the appropriate interpretation,” Bolan said in an interview, adding that she’s noticed an increased tendency to withhold the names of murder victims.

As a result, she argues, community members aren’t aware of violent crimes in their neighbourhoods.

“I believe there’s too much secrecy with police in B.C. –– that’s certainly been my experience,” says Bolan. “They always withhold as much as they can it seems, and likewise we have a problem with secrecy in the court, and publication bans that are inhibiting our abilities to do our jobs properly and inform the public about what’s going in major cases.”

Reporters have responded by resorting to new tactics to get information about crimes that affect their communities and challenge police institutions across Canada.

Bolan, who has been a reporter at the Vancouver Sun for nearly 30 years, has started the blog REAL SCOOP News, a section of the Vancouver Sun dedicated to crime news. Bolan’s beat focused on organized and gang-related crime that has intensified since the early 2000s, with more drugs and more gun violence making their way onto the streets of British Columbia communities. Bolan says that she is one of the few reporters to consistently focus on the topic

“Oftentimes, people assume that those stories are perhaps small and insignificant,” she says. “But the reality is that oftentimes those stories have bigger connections to other communities in the region in Canada, or in some cases, other parts of the world.”

Lisa Taylor, a journalism professor at Ryerson University, has been studying issues related to police withholding of information. Her research has focused on police services that are not releasing the names of homicide victims. As of May, for example, Edmonton police had not named eight out of 17 victims in homicide cases. The RCMP Alberta Headquarters has withheld two out of 14.

“Our construction of crime is that crime is not just a wrong that one person commits against another: crime is a wrong that one person commits against society at large,” says Taylor, who presented her research at a recent conference on the future of local journalism. “So this whole idea of holding back names of victims and saying ‘it’s just private’ is the first problem.”

RCMP protocols state that names can only be released if the dead individuals give permission or if the disclosure helps with the investigation. More recently, a new framework introduced in Alberta is supporting this similar RCMP protocols and is being opposed by many in Canadian media. Going forward, a list of criteria will have to be filled before releasing the name of a victim to ensure what they consider to be a privacy violation is defensible.

Although the laws and legislation have not changed in more than a decade, in the past few years less information is being released by some police. This mainly has to do with how different divisions and levels of police interpret the laws.

“A piece of legislation is a complex thing,” says Taylor. “There is nothing that tells us that this information needs to be withheld. But, there’s nothing that explicitly says this information needs to be released.”

Releasing important information can be essential in a police investigation where a suspect is not named, Taylor said. For many journalists, being able to provide names also make their work more credible than a broad-brush approach. For families, being able to provide a name can also be a way to help put a face to a crime that might otherwise be swept under the rug in their community.

“We often assume that no victim’s family wants their loved ones mentioned, and I think that’s probably true nine times out of 10,” says Taylor. “But then there’s the tenth family who desperately wants you to know that their loved one wasn’t just some guy shot in a park. He was a dad and a member of a church and a great soccer player and a million other wonderful things.”

In addition to withholding key information, police across Canada have even been encrypting their scanners, making it more difficult for journalists to monitor what is going on.

The lack of transparency has consequences. In Thunder Bay, Ont., for instance, journalists and community members have been demanding more information from the police. James Murray, an editor at NetNewsLedger, says that the public, and Indigenous communities in particular, have major issues when it comes to trusting the Thunder Bay Police Service.

“About six, seven years ago Thunder Bay really was slow on releasing information on almost any crime that was going on,” he says. “Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Treaty 3 and Rainy River First Nations are now complaining that police are coming to judgment really quickly without doing any investigation.”

For Murray, crime reporting in Thunder Bay is still evolving. But the lack of transparency in crime, specifically the lack of information about homicides, is disturbing for many people. And that means journalists have an even bigger role when it comes to chasing down the truth and putting pressure on the police to release more information.

According to Murray, in some cases in Thunder Bay, police have been so slow to release details of victims, that the family and community has put up a full memorial page on Facebook before the police have even confirmed the death to the media. This, combined with serious questions about the quality of police investigations, mean reporters are digging deeper into these cases.

“Over and over and over again there’s been young people come down to Thunder Bay to go to school and end up in the river –– all (of them) Indigenous youth—Ojibwe kids from the north, Cree kids from the north. The usual explanation is that it’s not a crime. First Nation communities are going, ‘Our people are around water all the time, fishing and they’re hunting and in boats. How [do they] all of a sudden come to Thunder Bay and drown?’” said Murray.

Until police release more names of victims, or release more information related to serious crimes in general, journalists will increasingly continue to rely exclusively on sources outside of the police forces to write their stories.

Sarah Ladik is a reporter in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan but worked in the North-West Territories for five years.

“We’ve had cases where so much was held back that we couldn’t report,” she says. “If the family wants to talk to me and the family is cool with having their name out, then we’re out and that’s it. You don’t need the police to confirm with you.

“[Police are] not your only way of getting that information and yeah, it’s a bit tougher to track down families. It’s an emotional thing. It’s rough. It’s unpleasant. Generally they’re more difficult to find, but it’s still worthwhile, that’s the job.”

Journalists can mine information from social media, especially Facebook, to track down family and friends, they can cover court proceedings where names are made public, or they can work their sources in the community to get around police obstacles. Taylor noted, however, that these strategies can also complicate relations with police sources.

“If a journalist is told that the name is not being released by the police but then the journalist uses her own methods and gets that information and publishes it,” she says, “she may risk alienating the police and then find herself in a position of being further frozen out, and given even less information than she was getting before because that seems to be just how subjective these things are.” Taylor added, however, that it’s important that journalists not let one voice control the narrative, even if it’s the police.

Bolan continues to report on organized crime in Vancouver because she knows no one else has a beat as unique as hers. She’s still following the UN gang, even though publication bans stop her from publishing the name of the man who testified about plotting her murder.

In the meantime she keeps fighting for information on behalf of her readers: “Police and court officials sometimes forget that they’re paid by the public and therefore should be accountable to the public,” says Bolan. “We expect a certain level of transparency in all other government operations, but suddenly when it comes to police and courts, secrecy is okay. I don’t accept that as a journalist.”

This is one of a series of articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Watch the full conference panel below. To read more about the conference and local news, visit:  localnews.journalism.ryerson.ca.

By SIERRA BEIN
Staff reporter

Journalists around the world make the mistake of assuming that their journalistic ethical approaches are the best – or only – standards. Especially with crime reporting, what might seem normal in North America is shocking to some cultures in Europe, say two researchers from Canada and the United States.

Naming victims and suspects in serious crimes is the default approach in North America, a practice meant to support the public’s right to know critical information about their community. But in some areas of Europe, not identifying people in news stories is meant to serve as a way to rehabilitate people and their reputations.

“I think the first thing we need to alert journalists everywhere to is that we need to stop assuming this culture of sameness,” said Romayne Smith Fullerton, an assistant professor of Information and Media Studies at Western University.

“That’s just not respectful. It’s very colonial.”

Fullerton and her research partner Maggie Jones Patterson, a journalism professor from Duquesne University in Pennsylvania, have been studying how culture and journalism ethics shape crime reporting since 2010. Fullerton presented some of their findings on a panel about police and local news at Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future, a conference hosted by the Ryerson School of Journalism on June 3-4.

Naming someone in a serious crime story automatically involves family and friends’ reputations as well, which can be detrimental to criminals making efforts to rehabilitate, and can re-traumatize family members who have lost someone, says Fullerton

One of the biggest differences the researchers noticed is how identity is treated in North America compared to in certain countries in Europe, where different considerations are given to a person involved in crime—suspect or victim.

“There’s a real presumption of innocence until that person is convicted. They deserve every benefit of the doubt, and media coverage can be like punishment,” she said. “You’ve served your time, and paid your debt to society. You ought to be able to rejoin your community and have a life.”

“In the United States,” where there is more value placed on informing the public about everything, “that’s impossible,” said Fullerton.

“If you have a record, you’re not going to work. So it’s very difficult to rejoin [society] after you’ve been othered,” she said. “If you just say that person is a monster instead of a citizen, then you don’t need to take social responsibility for the fact that culture, economics, and education create criminals.”

In coverage of the Manchester bombings in the U.K., where 22 people were killed when a bomb went off at a music concert, for example, U.S. media published the name of one of the assailants while British media did not, instead providing in-depth descriptions and a nickname.

“The anger of the police and U.K government that they had lost control of intelligence material was accompanied by members of the public and other news organisations condemning the insensitive nature of the report,” reads a news story from The Guardian.

Fullerton described a culture clash that emerged when British-owned media began to take over certain news outlets in Ireland. As a result, British tabloid-style standards were imposed on Irish publications. Generally, the Irish did not identify individuals involved in crime to leave room for rehabilitation while the British were more focused on getting the entire story on front pages.

Members of the Irish press soon created a press council and a press ombudsperson to help regulate a Celtic ethic in their news. Now, Irish media have a formal way to enforce their ethical standard in their publications. Fullerton and Patterson say other countries could look to this case study, should they chose to evaluate their ethical standards.

Fullerton says that they may go on to study France and Quebec as well.

“I didn’t want to lump it in with English-speaking Canada, [with its] different laws, different cultural assumptions. I think it deserves it’s own space,” she said.

Fullerton says she and Patterson plan to continue their research and that they hope other researchers will also look beyond the scope of just Europe and North America.

By JASMINE BALA
Staff reporter

Ryerson journalism professor Lisa Taylor, co-editor of The Unfulfilled Promise of Press Freedom in Canada.

Threats to press freedom are actually threats to the public’s right to know, says the co-editor of a new book that examines efforts to undermine Canadian journalists’ abilities to do their jobs.

Lisa Taylor, a lawyer, award-winning journalist and assistant professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism (RSJ), said that the discourse surrounding press freedom in recent years is worrisome because it overlooks the real cost of restrictions on journalistic work.

“Journalists don’t seek access to information so that they can just talk to other journalists about it,” Taylor said. “The end game is in sharing it with the public, and I think somewhere along the line we’ve lost sight of the idea that all the media are is a surrogate for the public.

“The public can’t drop everything and go to court for a day. The public can’t make it their job to spend weeks tracking down information and accessing it through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Journalists don’t do it to benefit journalists, they do it to benefit the world at large. Press freedom is not really a freedom for the press, it’s a freedom for the people who receive information from the press.”

The Unfulfilled Promise of Press Freedom in Canada, edited by Taylor and Cara-Marie O’Hagan, the former director of the Ryerson Law Research Centre, is a collection of essays by academics, journalists, lawyers and others. The edited volume, Taylor writes in an opening note, explores how press freedom has been constrained by “governmental interference, threats of libel suits and financial constraints.”

Taylor said the chapters examine press freedom “from many different angles,” an approach that makes it different than other books on the topic.

“It was exciting because I think often academics write stuff that only other academics read, or journalists write about this issue and academics don’t bother with what journalists have to say about it,” Taylor explained. “So as someone who has been a journalist, works as an academic and has worked as a lawyer, it was, quite selfishly, really exciting to pull together these three worlds that I’ve inhabited.”

Contributors to the collection include RSJ professors Ivor Shapiro and Gavin Adamson, City of Vaugan integrity commissioner Suzanne Craig, court reporter Robert Koopmans and former CBC media lawyer Daniel Henry. They cover topics ranging from press freedom and privacy in the digital sphere to reporters’ access to information during court proceedings and the press freedom provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Taylor’s own chapter discusses the difficulty of rescinding publication bans on the identity of sexual assault complainants who want their bans lifted. These bans automatically come into effect if either the prosecutor or the complainant ask for it. Not only do the bans prevent media from publishing the identity of complainants, Taylor writes, they also prevent complainants from identifying themselves as sexual assault survivors during and after proceedings. This impedes the complainant’s charter rights under section 2(b), she continues, which states that everyone has the “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”

“What happens is, if we have a willing sexual assault complainant who would like to speak to the press they are prevented from speaking publicly,” Taylor said in an interview. “[This] means that the press is also prevented from disseminating their words. So it’s just another way in which press freedom is hampered.”

Taylor suggests a more flexible approach is required, one that will “ensure that the complainant who wants to have the protection of the statute will still have that opportunity, while the complainant who chooses to speak out will be able to exercise the rights she is guaranteed under the charter.”

The book draws on papers presented during Press Freedom in Canada: A status report on the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a 2012 conference organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

When the charter was put into place in 1982, Taylor said, it looked like journalists finally had the guarantees of press freedom they needed. As it turned out, however, that was an overly optimistic assessment.

Before the charter was enacted, “we saw unfair restrictions on the press [and] we saw simple FOI applications take weeks, months or even years to be fulfilled,” Taylor said. “Back when it was first enshrined, there’s no way I could have imagined that in 2017 we’d be fighting a lot of the same battles. It just looked like it was on its way out. There was great promise that came with the charter and we just haven’t seen it fully realized. In fact, we’ve seen some back steps.”

By MAIJA KAPPLER
Special to the RJRC

Lisa Taylor

Ryerson School of Journalism instructor Lisa Taylor.

An archaic Canadian law against criminal libel is being used with increasing frequency to shut down political dissent and criticism of police officers, judges and powerful institutions, new research by Ryerson University journalism professor Lisa Taylor suggests.

Convictions for criminal libel averaged 18 cases per year between 2005 and 2008, Taylor found. She and her research partner David Pritchard of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee combed through digital archives, criminal judgements and media reports to assemble the data and found that the number of convictions has grown steadily. Between 2009 and 2012, there were 37.7 criminal libel convictions annually – more than double the earlier figure.

A quarter of these convictions are cases related to political dissent, in which individuals were charged for taking on powerful organizations. That means charges have been laid for crimes like warning against police brutality, protesting controversial rulings by judges and criticizing municipal authorities on Facebook.

Many legal scholars consider the criminalization of critical or insulting language to be anachronistic. It would be easy enough to assume that it’s only implemented in extraordinarily rare cases, Taylor says — but that’s not what happens.

“When I think ‘extraordinarily rare,’ I’m thinking four-leaf clovers, albino alligators,” Taylor, a lawyer by training, said during a Nov. 1 presentation organized by Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression. The growing number of criminal libel convictions point to prosecutions that aren’t as rare as everyone thought.

Libel is usually a civil issue. If an individual’s reputation suffers because something untrue or unfair has been written or broadcast about them, the usual course of events would involve launching a suit and seeking financial restitution. Writers, editors, producers and media organizations can all be sued for libel, and plaintiffs are entitled to more money if they’ve suffered extreme humiliation or shown that the defendants acted with malice.

For individuals and media organizations, the threat of civil libel charges is a deterrent against treating people with carelessness or callousness. Losing a libel case and having to pay damages is a punitive measure.

But libel can also be a criminal offence. Under Canada’s Criminal Code, “defamatory libel” is punishable by a prison term of up to two years, or up to five if the defendants knew that what they were publishing was false. Taylor and Pritchard’s research focused mainly on Sections 300 and 301 of the code. Section 300 carries a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison for libelous speech that is a “known falsehood,” while Section 301 carries a two-year maximum sentence for any defamatory libel.

Another surprising feature of the law is that a person can be charged with criminal libel even if what they published is true. A plaintiff can’t win a civil case if what’s been said about them is demonstrably true, no matter how defamatory. But in a criminal case, unlike a civil case, truth is not a defence.

Criminal libel prosecutions usually fall into two categories. Taylor says the first category, political dissent libel, makes up about 25 per cent of criminal libel cases and involves “strong, harsh, maybe dishonest language against powerful people.”

Karen MacKinnon, a former city councillor in Drumheller, Alberta, was charged twice under Section 301 of the Criminal Code for a Facebook post in which she called a local politician and an Alberta Crown prosecutor “repulsive, corrupted, lying, thieving, deviant bastards both” and, in a later post, called that same prosecutor “a pet kangaroo.”

David Charney, at the time an Osgoode Hall law student and well-known activist against violent police practices, was charged with criminal libel for distributing posters that accused a specific police officer of brutality. (The charges were dropped and the case became a civil matter six months later, but nothing ever came of it.)

In another case, a man picketed a judge who had awarded custody of his children to the man’s ex-wife, who then fled the jurisdiction; the man was charged with criminal libel for bearing a sign that said the judge permits child abuse. The charges were dropped, but not until two and a half years later.

Taylor told the audience at the Ryerson School of Journalism that the power dynamics in these cases negate the need for libel action — criminal or otherwise. Judges, prison guards and police officers should be able to withstand criticism from the people they have authority over, even if some of that criticism is harsh or even untrue.

“Only the most naïve person could ever assume one of these positions and imagine that people are only going to say nice things about them,” Taylor said. “They’re powerful people. We are critical of power. We should be critical of power.”

Even when nothing comes of these charges — when they’re dropped after a few months, or end up as civil case that go nowhere the threat of criminal prosecution has a chilling effect. Taylor referred to something her co-researcher Pritchard said: In these cases, having to contend with possible jail time is enough to discourage and to penalize. The process is the punishment.

The second kind of criminal libel prosecution is less obviously defensible. Failed relationship libel usually occurs after an intimate relationship has ended and one party sets out to smear the other. In one case Taylor examined, a man put up posters with his ex-girlfriend’s name and photo that falsely accused her of pedophilia.

Taylor said that eliminating criminal libel law wouldn’t mean allowing that kind of behaviour to go unchallenged. The woman would have easily won a civil case, and the fact that she opted to go to the police instead demonstrates the financial inaccessibility of civil lawsuits (the woman was a student at the time). If the ex-boyfriend continued his attack campaign, Taylor added, there are many other criminal offenses that would cover his crime: criminal harassment, for example, intimidation or incitement of hatred.

Taylor argued that criminal libel should be removed from Canada’s Criminal Code. It is “antithetical to free expression,” a right protected by Canada’s charter, she said, noting that the U.K. has dispensed with its criminal libel laws and there are no federal criminal libel laws in the U.S. (although some states do still have criminal libel laws on the books.)

Canada’s criminal libel law, she said, is being used in lieu of more specific laws. It serves no legitimate purpose, Taylor argues, and keeping the contradictory and unclear law on the books has troubling repercussions: it criminalizes dissent against powerful groups and is an affront to free speech.

“It’s abuse of power, full stop,” says Taylor.