The arrest of three journalists covering an anti-abortion protest in Toronto has prompted accusations of police bias and infringement on freedom of the press.
The Christian, anti-abortion journalists ? Stephen Jalsevac, Gord Truscott, and Sue Careless (a regular contributor to the Journal) ? were independently covering a protest Oct. 15 by Linda Gibbons outside the Scott Clinic on Gerrard Street in Toronto.
The protest violates the terms of a 1994 temporary injunction, which prohibits anti-abortion demonstrations within 60 feet of several clinics in Ontario during working hours.
Prohibited activities include leafleting, displaying a sign, oral protest, approaching any person “with a view to dissuading them from entering” or “interfering with the economic interests” of the clinics.
Ms. Gibbons has repeatedly violated the injunction and consequently has spent 1,627 days in jail ? more than four and a half years. The injunction does not, however, ban reporters from covering protests inside the prohibited area.
Mr. Jalsevac, a director of Campaign Life Coalition and director of LifeSite News, an anti-abortion Web site, was videotaping the protest for the Web site. Mr. Truscott is an executive member of Right to Life in Guelph. He is writing a book about Ms. Gibbons and was covering the protest for the Royal City Journal, a quarterly Christian newspaper with a free circulation of 31,000. Ms. Careless, a freelance journalist for mainstream and religion publications, was covering the protest for the Interim, an anti-abortion newspaper.
The reporters were arrested alongside Ms. Gibbons and charged with obstructing a peace officer, a criminal offence with a maximum penalty of two years. Their film and video were also confiscated.
The charge requires that a person “resists or wilfully obstructs” a peace officer or omits to come to his aid when asked to do so.
Mr. Jalsevac insists he did nothing to obstruct officers who were arresting Ms. Gibbons nor was he given a warning to leave before he was arrested.
“I’m dumbfounded this happened,” he said, adding that he has covered protests by Ms. Gibbons before without incident. “My purpose is not in any way to get involved in the injunction. It’s to record what is occurring.”
Mr. Jalsevac has written complaint letters to the police department, attorney general and solicitor general, raising concerns about “false arrest, illegal detention, illegal confiscation of private property and improper procedure.” He also asked for the immediate return of his videotape. “It’s evidence for our defence, and it’s also our story material.”
Mr. Truscott, who has also covered Ms. Gibbons’s protests before, also insists that he was given no warning or opportunity to leave before being arrested. Blaise MacLean, legal counsel for the two men, suggested they were perhaps “tarred with the same brush” as Ms. Gibbons and it was assumed, wrongly, that “because they were there, they were joining in the protest.”
Ms. Careless referred inquiries to her lawyer Peter Jervis who called the arrests “shocking.” He said Ms. Careless had moved off the sidewalk and was taking photos from behind a parked car when she was arrested. “She was not involved in any way in the activities prohibited by the injunction, and was not obstructing the arrest in any way. There was an auto between her and the arresting officer,” said Mr. Jervis. “Here is a journalist who is simply covering an event.”
The Canadian Church Press (an association of 80 publications, including the Journal, and 15 associate members) and the Periodical Writers Association of Canada have both written to the Attorney General to protest Ms. Careless’s arrest (she is a member of both associations).
The CCP called her arrest an “outrageous infringement of freedom of the press.” PWAC said it “threatens to introduce a chill factor into the freelance reporting of controversial news events. We cannot help but wonder whether this arrest would have taken place if Ms. Careless had been a staff member for one of the major daily newspapers, who have the legal resources to defend their journalists from police harassment.”
Police did not return phone calls, and the Attorney General declined to comment because the case is before the courts.
Ms. Careless appeared briefly in provincial court on Nov. 5 and the matter was adjourned until Dec. 3. A trial date has not yet been set. Marianne Meed Ward is a freelance writer, editor and broadcaster in Toronto.