Challenge seeks to stop police posing as reporters

On September 3, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), the CBC and RTNDA Canada, the Association of Electronic Journalists, launched a Charter of Rights and Freedoms application to stop the practice of police impersonating journalists.

Despite a number of protests from media organizations, which are concerned that such impersonation erodes trust between reporters and their sources and could place journalists in serious danger, Canadian police forces are known to have gathered evidence on a number of occasions by pretending to be reporters or television camera operators.

The Toronto Star recently reported  on how an Ontario Provincial Police officer obtained an interview with convicted murderer Philip Vince in prison by pretending she was a journalist writing a book. It was a trick – successful, police said – to get Vince to implicate himself in the 1999 killing of another inmate at Millhaven Penitentiary.

Posing as a would-be biographer may be a new twist, but police masquerading as reporters is nothing new. Ontario Provincial Police Constable Steve Martell impersonated a television reporter during the Ipperwash protests in 1995 (CBC report). Then undercover police posed as reporters at the funeral of Dudley George, the aboriginal leader killed by police at Ipperwash.

In 2007, a Vancouver police officer posing as a reporter for the local free daily 24 Hours requested a meeting with anti-poverty protester David Cunningham and arrested Cunningham as soon as he arrived. (Vancouver Province report)

Recently Chris Lewis, the incoming Ontario Provincial Police commissioner, said that while impersonating journalists is against police policy, he could not say it would not happen again. “To save a life to get close to that person, then we might do what we have to do,” the Canadian Press quoted Lewis as saying.

After earlier letters of protest from CJFE, CBC and RTNDA, former OPP commissioner Julian Fantino said the practice would continue and the Ontario Attorney-General declined to intervene in police operations. That led to the present Charter application.

J-Source previously reported on a panel discussion on this issue at CJFE’s 2009 annual general meeting.