How to Talk to Cops

Photo courtesy of Dan Burnett
Photo courtesy of Farid Muttalib

Often on the front lines of controversy, journalists could stand for some good legal advice

By Christi Walter

This has been quite a year for protests in B.C., and covering these events is not always smooth sailing for the media. Protests can lead to injunctions, and journalists have an obligation to cover what’s happening during conflicts between protestors and authorities. But this can occasionally lead to journalists getting caught in the crossfire.  

During the 2021 protests on Wet’suwet’en territory, two journalists were arrested by the RCMP. The incident caused discontent within the media circle and acted as a reminder that journalists don’t necessarily come equipped with solid legal knowledge.

 You have a few options when faced with legal challenges, including filing a complaint. There’s also the opportunity unique to journalists of reporting what happened to them. If you are a journalist seeking representation, the Canadian Media Lawyers Association is a great resource. 

Remember, above all else, journalists have a right to witness and collect information.  Here are four must-know tips—from B.C. media lawyers Farid Muttalib and Dan Burnett—on what to do when journalists’ work brings them in contact with police. 

No. 1:  Say who you are

A good, simple reminder: always communicate that you are a journalist, both verbally and with some sort of employee logo; if you’re a freelancer, display some sort of pass that says “media” or “press,” according to media lawyer and former legal counsel for CBC, Farid Muttalib. 

No. 2: Ask the right questions

If you’re covering a protest and the police instruct you to stay with them, ask if you’re under arrest. “They know they have a very fine line about how long they can detain someone without arresting them,” says Dan Burnett, a Vancouver lawyer who teaches media law at UBC’s journalism school. “By asking those questions, you are telegraphing to them that you know what your rights are.”

No. 3: Know about search and seizure

It’s not unheard of for police officers to request to see your notebook, camera, or memory cards. “Somebody standing there wearing a uniform saying that in a confident voice kind of gives the impression that, ‘Well, I’d better do what they say,’” says Burnett. “The problem is, you may think you don’t have a choice, but when you hand anything over, you’re now subject to a ‘consensual search.’”

Muttalib says you can even specifically say, “I do not give consent to a search,” even if the police have already confiscated those items. 

No. 4: Lawyer up

In extreme cases where you are arrested, contact a lawyer immediately. If you’re a freelancer, have a lawyer’s number on hand, because whether the outlet you work for will represent you legally is on a case-by-case basis. 

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