Hamilton police overstepped when they arrested two journalists at a fatal accident scene this week, one expert says — a move that is extremely rare in Canada.
"The fact that the police thought they could restrict them in this way is an affront to journalism and to the law," said Jeffrey Dvorkin, the director of the University of Toronto's journalism program.
"Clearly the journalists were not doing anything untoward."
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Freelancer Dave Ritchie and Global News's Jeremy Cohn were arrested in Waterdown, where a 10-year-old girl was struck and killed by a van on Tuesday evening.
'This is routine for journalists, a road accident. The vast majority of times, there are no incidents. It's certainly out of the ordinary."- Duncan Pike, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Police Chief Eric Girt said he is reviewing the incident, but in a statement he offered no explanation about what occurred other than to say there were "interactions" between an officer and the journalists.
"During the scene management of this fatal motor vehicle collision investigation, there were interactions between a member of the Hamilton Police Service and members of the media responding to the scene," Girt said. "As a result of these interactions, two individuals were arrested."
Cohn was "released unconditionally," while Ritchie was charged with obstructing a peace officer and resisting arrest.
"As the matter is now before the courts, no further comment will be made in order to respect the court proceedings." Girt's statement reads.
There is no matter involving Cohn before the courts.
Dvorkin said that it's "clear that the journalists were not doing anything untoward," but official accounts of what exactly happened have been scarce.
CHCH News reported that Ritchie was arrested after he left his camera unattended momentarily while he went to change his batteries. He told CHCH News he arrived at the scene before police had put up yellow tape marking a boundary.
"When he came back, his camera was gone and a police officer admitted to taking it," CHCH reported.
Ritchie told the news agency that the officer used the term "scumbags" to refer to media, and Ritchie and the officer got into an argument before Ritchie was tackled and arrested.
He has not responded to requests for comment by CBC News. CBC is one of the news outlets that buys content from Ritchie.
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) has called for a public inquiry into the arrests. Duncan Pike, the organization's campaigns and advocacy coordinator, told CBC News that it's very rare for journalists to be arrested in Canada at an accident scene like this.
"This is routine for journalists, a road accident," he said. "The vast majority of times, there are no incidents.
"It's certainly out of the ordinary."
CJFE says it has reached out to both journalists to offer support, though Pike says they're hopeful the charges against Ritchie will be dropped before he's scheduled to appear in court in June.
Dvorkin said that at a scene like this one, where a ten-year-old girl died, tensions will always be higher.
But, he noted, "It's not the job of journalists to help police do their jobs."
"News organizations also need to not be overly graphic in what they're reporting," he said.
CBC's Journalism Standards and Practices rules include guidance around use of graphic images and sensitivity toward victims of tragedy.