Journalists need all the allies they can get in the continuing battle to keep police and government officials accountable to the public for their actions.

That was the common theme that emerged in two journalism-related sessions at a conference on “Civil liberties and democracy in the digital age: Privacy, media and free expression” held at Ryerson University on Sept. 21 and 22.

The conference was sponsored by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and co-sponsored by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

Derek Soberal, who describes himself as a civilian journalist, told a session on Saturday morning that cellphone videos of police actions during the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010 “really turned the page” in terms of making police accountable for their actions. (A Toronto police officer was convicted earlier this month of assaulting protester Adam Nobody during the protest, with the verdict depending heavily on video evidence recorded at the time.)

That 2010 experience also turned him into a civilian journalist, Soberal said, and now he regularly attends protests to document police actions.

Referring to the fatal police shooting of Sammy Yatim on a Toronto streetcar last month, Soberal said video recordings from the scene reached a much larger audience when they were disseminated by mainstream media.

Kathy English, the Toronto Star’s public editor, said that even though some established journalists feel threatened by citizen journalists like Soberal – and even though citizen journalism presents some genuine issues that need to be addressed – “there is something to be gained by all of us working together. “

The work of citizen journalists is important because professionals can’t possibly be everywhere and observe everything, especially with recent staff reductions in many newsrooms, English said.

“On any given day, we should know where you are and what you’re doing,” she told Soberal.

But she added that citizen journalists have a responsibility to check their facts if they are going to disseminate information publicly. “There are still standards that citizens have a right to expect  … (citizen journalists) too have to be held accountable.”

Brian Rogers, one of Canada’s leading media-law practitioners and a lecturer at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, said the ease of recording video on cellphones and posting it online has changed the ground rules for accountability.

“You don’t need big, expensive printing presses,” he said. “The ability to publish and broadcast for almost zero money is transformative.”

Rogers argued that as long as citizen journalists are doing essentially what professional journalists do – publishing information on matters of public interest – they “can have the same legal protection.”

For example, police will often try to seize or even destroy a camera that is being used to film their actions (as Soberal reported happened to him during a recent protest against city of Toronto budget cuts).

“Taking the camera, busting the camera – there is no excuse for that,” Rogers said. He said police require a search warrant before they can seize a camera, and advised anyone who does hand over a camera to make a copy of the video first, and publish the material online as soon as possible.

At a second journalism-related session on Saturday afternoon, journalists were urged to co-operate with other citizens and interest groups in fighting for better access to government information.

Ryerson Journalism professor Paul Knox and science writer Pippa Wysong both gave examples of what Knox described as a “massive deterioration” of the freedom of information/access to information (FOI/ATI) system in Canada.

Wysong said that in the late 1980s, science writers had easy access to government scientists working on subjects like climate change and pollution. Now, she said, such requests are often denied, or there are major delays in responding, or a very limited official response is provided. If an interview with a government scientist is permitted, a representative of the department’s media-relations department may insist on listening in.

Knox said the “attack”  on FOI laws includes more exemptions for specific types of information, long delays, huge fees, and the classification of more information as Cabinet secrets.

“Knowledge created at public expense ought to be public,” Knox said.

He listed various efforts to improve the freedom-of-information climate in Canada, including the possibility of a new “FOI portal”  that would be a clearinghouse for information, strategies and tools.

David Eaves, who describes himself as a public policy entrepreneur and played a central role in the Vancouver city government’s adoption of an “open data” approach, insisted that FOI should not be seen as an issue mainly of interest to journalists.

“This limits the number of people who could be involved in the discussion,” Eaves said. For example, journalists could make alliances with private-sector advocates of more open government to “build a much bigger coalition.”

Knox agreed, saying the FOI portal he mentioned was explicitly designed to include everyone. He also noted that most FOI requests are not made by journalists, but by corporations.

“Everyone should get together to say enough is enough.”

Wysong said some people feel that FOI “is just a journalist’s issue and doesn’t apply to me.” She said the challenge is to show how restrictions on access to government information affect people’s daily lives.

The message should be, “Hey, this could affect your health – your children could die early because of exposure” to pollutants the public hasn’t been informed about.

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