Access denied: journalist tells his side of the G20 story

Jesse FreestonA first-person account from The Real News
Network journalist Jesse Freeston on being beaten, denied access to public spaces and the story
police didn’t want him to capture

Read about other journalists who were arrested, beaten or had their equipment destroyed in J-Source’s G20 roundup.

My ability to cover the Toronto G-20, more precisely to cover those people expressing their dissent against the G-20, was repeatedly restricted. At virtually every step, my attempts to document and gather information for my audience were impeded by police officers. Here are a few examples of how this took place:

1) RESPONSIBILITY TO INFORM: Early on the afternoon of Sunday, June 27th, police detained dozens of people outside the activist convergence centre in the Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale. During this operation people were searched, asked to show identification, held for hours without charges or investigation, and roughly twenty were arrested. Many were arrested on seemingly arbitrary physical profiling. I say this because I heard and recorded officers saying things like ‘get anyone with a bandana’, and arresting people for having phone numbers written on their arms. Neither the media, the detained, nor concerned community members were ever given a statement as to what was going on. It is inexcusable that such an operation went on for hours without any communication from the police.

2) DENIAL OF ACCESS: During the mass detention on Queen and Spadina on Sunday, June 27th, the police set up a broad perimeter from which they denied journalists access to the area. This perimeter was too far away to provide any line of sight as to what was happening. I was told later by Staff Supt. Jeff McGuire that such actions were necessary to protect us from an unlawful assembly. I believe that it is up to the journalists themselves to determine their level of risk, so long as they don’t directly interfere in what they’re covering.

More worrisome is that not a single journalist was allowed into the detention centre while people were held there. That is, no journalists that weren’t themselves under arrest, and nobody with any kind of photo or video device to document what was happening. There are serious accusations coming out of that facility and the public has been left to weigh the words of the accuser and the accused, with no third party. This is the predictable result of not allowing media into the facility. As a poor substitute for real access, a media tour of the facility was provided by police after everyone had been released or transferred. No detainees that I’m aware of were present on the tour to deny or confirm the police version of events. In fact, journalist Adam MacIsaac, who was beaten, arrested and had his equipment confiscated, was denied entry to the media tour.
3) USE OF FORCE: On Friday, June 25th, during the ‘Justice for our Communities’ march, police used force to remove me from an area. I was punched in the face twice while being pushed up against some bikes by a group of officers. When I inquired as to where the orders came from to do this, an officer snatched my microphone and told me to leave. They eventually returned the microphone after other journalists gathered around.

It is true that I respectfully ignored two requests for me to leave the area, but I think it is our duty to take reasonable measures to remain in such an area. We should be wary of situations where only the journalists are being asked to leave and other civilians are being allowed to stay. We should take all reasonable measures to remain on the scene.


My experience is one of many that, when combined, paint a picture of a consistent policy toward journalists. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is very clear that journalists don’t enjoy any additional individual rights, but rather that all people have the right to a free press. The victims of these violations are not primarily the journalists themselves, but the public that was forced to form an opinion while their information gatherers were beaten, imprisoned, threatened, and otherwise denied their ability to do their work.

Freedom of the press is found under the ‘Fundamental Freedoms’ section of the Charter. This means that no crisis, real or perceived, gives authorities the right to revoke it. On the contrary, it is precisely for such times that these freedoms exist. In other words, it is not to cover Blue Jays games that we have freedom of the press, but specifically to document things like extraordinary measures taken by authorities.

I believe that journalists should demand two things. First, to find out why journalists, and by extension their audiences, were treated this way. Second, they should demand a new precedent, based on the Charter, that such treatment will not be tolerated in the future. The public inquiry is, in my opinion, the only process in this country with the jurisdiction, subpoena power, transparency, and legitimacy to achieve both these goals. Therefore, journalists should not hesitate to openly advocate for such a process.

Jesse Freeston is a journalist and video producer from Ottawa, ON. He currently resides in Washington, DC where he produces documentary news pieces for The Real News Network. The Real News is a free, viewer-sustained, daily video news service that accepts no money from corporations, governments, or advertising.