Incident with Niagara Reporter was Violation of Rights: Ontario Ombudsman

St. Catherines Ontario panorama.

TORONTO — Municipal staff in Niagara Region violated a reporter’s charter rights when they seized his equipment and called police after assuming he was trying to record a closed council meeting, Ontario’s ombudsman found in a report released Wednesday.

Paul Dube launched an investigation in December 2017, days after the incident involving a St. Catharines Standard reporter and a citizen blogger who were covering the meeting that went into a closed session.

While Dube’s analysis found the blogger’s rights were not violated, he found the Regional Municipality of Niagara acted inappropriately toward both men when their property was seized, police were called and they were asked to leave the region headquarters.

“It is my opinion that the region’s actions were contrary to law, unreasonable, unjust and wrong,” Dube wrote in his report.

The incident was decried by journalism organizations as an assault on press freedoms when it occurred.

According to the report, the blogger left his seat to go to the washroom during a council meeting, leaving his recorder behind. In his absence, the council went into a closed session, with his device still recording, the report said.

The report said a region staff member told journalists present that they had to leave the room but were welcome to leave their equipment behind.

Niagara region staff then noticed that the blogger’s device was recording, the report said. Staff seized the device as well as the newspaper reporter’s laptop under the assumption that it was also recording, however it was later found that it was not.

“The journalist was simply lumped in with the citizen blogger in the heat of the moment, and presumed guilty of illegally recording the meeting,” Dube’s report said. “It is clear that his rights to freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and to liberty and security of the person were arbitrarily and casually infringed as a result.”

The region apologized in a phone call to St. Catharines Standard reporter Bill Sawchuk shortly after the incident.

Dube made 14 recommendations in his report, including suggesting that the region apologize publicly to both the reporter and the blogger, develop a clear protocol for closed meetings and appoint a media liaison.

The Niagara Region said it had already implemented some of Dube’s recommendations, such as amending a number of its policies “to ensure that best practices are followed in respect of the conduct of council meetings.”

“Niagara Region co-operated fully in the ombudsman’s investigation and intends to thoroughly review the final report,” it said in a statement.

The region’s spokesman Jason Tamming said a special council meeting has been scheduled for next week to discuss Dube’s report. He said it would be “premature” for the region to comment further on the recommendations before the meeting takes place.

Linda Williamson, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Ombudsman, said the region is not legally obliged to respond to the report’s recommendations, but noted that when these investigations are conducted, public sector bodies “almost always” respond.

Sawchuk said he’s pleased with the report.

“No one likes to have their charter rights violated,” he said. “You would expect our politicians and our senior bureaucrats in Niagara to have a better than normal understanding of the charter and clearly that wasn’t the case here.”

Sawchuk added that he believes the region’s council is on the “right track” when it comes to implementing the recommendations.

Angus Scott, the editor-in-chief of the St. Catharines Standard, said the paper is still waiting for a public apology.

“The region still doesn’t seem to recognize the seriousness of its infractions,” he said. “We have continued on since December to professionally cover this council and I expect that we’ll continue to do that.”

Alanna Rizza, The Canadian Press