CJFE condemns the seizure of St. Catharines Standard reporter's notes and laptop

Friday, December 08, 2017
2 reactions

Niagara Regional Council chamber. PHOTO: Niagara Region.

CJFE is deeply concerned by an incident in the Niagara Regional Council meeting in which city clerk Frank Fabiano seized notes and a computer belonging to St. Catharines Standard reporter Bill Sawchuk, allegedly on the orders of Chief Administrative Officer Carmen D'Angelo.

Sawchuk regularly covers meetings and was in attendance when a regular session was moved in-camera to discuss a code of conduct violation by  Coun. Andy Petrowski. After leaving the chamber, Sawchuk was notified by staff that he was suspected of surreptitiously recording the closed session with his laptop and that his device and notes were being seized.

After the seizure of his device, the reporter was ordered to leave the city hall building and threatened with police action if he failed to comply.  After repeated inquiries by the Standard and their legal counsel, the laptop was eventually retrieved from the staff member's office and returned.

The actions of Niagara Regional Council members and police are an outrageous assault on media rights, and evidence of a disturbing disregard for the role of the press in a democracy. A reporter's notes, sources and electronic devices should never be seized or searched except through enforcement of a court order, and only then under most narrow and rigorously scrutinized circumstances. It remains unclear under what authority the Region believed it was authorized to seize the belongings of a journalist. Canada dropped to 22nd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

CJFE calls on Mr. Fabiano and Mr. D'Angelo to provide an immediate and unconditional apology to Mr. Sawchuk. We furthermore support MPP Cindy Forster’s request to Minister of Municipal Affairs to immediately investigate this attack press freedom, and if necessary recommend policies to better protect the rights of media workers covering Niagara Regional Council.

What do you think?

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • Canadian Journalists Free Expression
    commented 2017-12-11 09:54:18 -0500
    Thanks for your comment Fiona. It’s very troubling to hear about the situation in Niagara as your describe it. I’d like to hear more about your statement that “Other local journalists have been censured and silenced for criticizing the egregious behaviour of regional councillors.” I’m at [email protected] if you are able to chat.
  • Fiona McMurran McMurran
    commented 2017-12-10 19:20:20 -0500
    This incident has made the news outside the Niagara region, yet for those of us who live here, it’s part of the on-going assault on basic freedoms we’ve been living with for too long. Other local journalists have been censured and silenced for criticizing the egregious behaviour of regional councillors. Local citizens who speak out have been sued by members of local government, and taxpayers bear the cost of such unsuccessful suits. A Niagara MPP shedding light on the lack of accountability and transparency of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, whose Board members are also members of Niagara Regional Council, has been accused of supporting anti-Semitism. An NPCA Board member who stood up for the right of citizens to information on Board expenditures was bullied mercilessly. Members of Niagara Regional Council conducted a campaign of harassment against another regional councillor and local mayor who stood up to the bullying tactics of his colleagues. A city councillor calling for transparency from her Mayor is regularly attacked in council meetings. Niagara is a scary place to live — it’s difficult for outsiders to comprehend the culture of repression we’ve come to accept as normal.