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.