Newspaper reporter kicked out of Niagara Region council meeting, laptop seized

Bill Sawchuk, a St. Catharines Standard reporter, wasn't recording anything, the paper says. But staff kept his laptop and notebook, and called police as they removed him from the building.

Regional staff seized the St. Catharines Standard reporter's belongings

The Niagara Region eventually returned Bill Sawchuk's belongings after receiving assurances from the newspaper legal counsel and Sawchuk that he was not recording the secret meeting.

A newspaper reporter's laptop and notebook were seized, and he was forced to leave the building with police on hand, after Niagara Region staff suspected him of recording the confidential portion of a council meeting.

Bill Sawchuk, a veteran reporter at the St. Catharines Standard, left the belongings in the room when regional council went in camera Thursday.

The region suspected Sawchuk's laptop was on and recording and took both items, said newspaper editor-in-chief Angus Scott. It returned them only after calls from the Standard's lawyer. Regional police were also called as regional staff forced Sawchuk to leave.

It remains unclear under what authority the region believed it was authorized to seize the belongings of a journalist.- Canadian Journalists for Free Expression

Sawchuk wasn't recording at all, Scott said, and told them that. Still, regional staff said he couldn't have his belongings back until Friday. 

The whole incident, Scott said, sounds alarm bells about press freedom in Niagara.

"I'm just shocked by the whole thing," he said.

"I would think a reasonable process would have involved approaching Bill, asking him if he's recording, and asking him to remove the laptop from the meeting room. If they weren't satisfied with that, they could call me or a supervisor in the newsroom."

'Deeply concerned'

Scott isn't alone on that. The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) says it's "deeply concerned" by what happened.

"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," the organization said in a letter to Niagara Region CAO Carmen D'Angelo.

"It remains unclear under what authority the region believed it was authorized to seize the belongings of a journalist."

Cindy Forster, NDP MPP for Welland, tweeted that she's asked the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to investigate.

"The removal of journalist Bill Sawchuk by police last night cannot be tolerated. A free press is essential to upholding our democracy."

The region said in a statement Friday that it "apologizes for (the) inconvenience caused to Mr. Sawchuk."

He wrote a story anyway

Two electronic devices were left on the media table when council went in camera, it said. It returned Sawchuk's laptop after "receiving assurances from the St. Catharines Standard's legal counsel" that he wasn't recording.

The region said it's reviewing its policies and protocols to make sure this doesn't happen again. And "the region will be inviting local media to participate in this process."

As for police, they said Friday that they were called about an "unwanted" man from regional headquarters, but didn't identify Sawchuk. Police say they had "no interaction" with the reporter.

After the incident, Scott said, Sawchuk came back to the office, watched the meeting via live stream and wrote a story about the meeting anyway.

"Bill's professionalism is well known in Niagara," he said. "He's a fantastic reporter."