How close can journalists get to activists before they compromise their credibility?
Miles Howe. via Facebook.
Miles Howe is no stranger to getting arrested. As a journalist for the independent Canadian news site, Media Co-Op, Miles has been covering the anti-fracking movement spearheaded by the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick for months now. The aboriginal resistance is being headed up by the Mi’kmaq Warriors who made national headlines in October, when their peaceful protest erupted into a clash against heavily armed members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The RCMP officers showed up in camouflage with assault rifles, and there were snipers present. At one point, Molotov cocktails were thrown, and 40 people were arrested. This show of force by law enforcement was an uncomfortable sight for the Canadians who were paying attention, and it didn’t help when an RCMP officer yelled, “Crown land belongs to the government, not to the fucking Natives.”
When Miles was covering the protest that turned violent on the 17th of October, he claims that a militarised and armed member of the RCMP pointed him out and yelled, “He’s with them!” A rallying cry that led to several RCMP officers tackling Miles to the ground and arresting him.
Miles’s most recent arrest was last week, on the 26th of November, which was the third time the RCMP put him in handcuffs without charge since he began covering the Mi’kmaq resistance. Given the serious consequences and dangerous precedent the targeting of a journalist would set in the province, and in Canada at large, I was somewhat skeptical of Miles’s intent and whether he was truly just being targeted for reporting. That said, given that Miles hadn’t been charged for any of these incidents, there was certainly grounds to investigate further.
That’s why I called Miles Howe yesterday and spoke to him about what’s been happening to him in New Brunswick since he began covering the conflict. I had already spoke to Jullie Rogers-Marsh, a media liaison at the RCMP, who confirmed that on the day Miles was arrested there was a man detained on Highway 11 who had violated a court injunction. While she was unable to confirm that the man was in fact Miles Howe, Miles told me his arrest was due to the violation of such an injunction.
The injunction in question was filed on the 22nd of November, and you can read a Cliff Notes version of the hearing thanks to CBC’s Jacques Poitras who was there taking notes. SWN, the oil company that’s causing all of the controversy in New Brunswick, was in court to restrict six protesters, from coming anywhere near their equipment. In a copy of the injunction (you can download a copy here) SWN insists that the protesters had vandalised and destroyed SWN property. Incidents are described wherein groups of protesters – some wearing masks – arrived at SWN work sites and threateningly ordered SWN employees to evacuate. Another incident describes the destruction of a SWN pick-up truck that had “its windshield and windows smashed, door panels dented and the step-up was broken.” They also insisted, “a drill rig costing $380,000 (£220,000) was burnt to the ground.”
Miles Howe was not originally named in the injunction, but he arrived at the hearing and asked to intervene in the proceedings to present some evidence in defence of the protesters – a request that SWN’s lawyer, Matthew Hayes, responded cautiously to. Matthew informed Miles that if he were to intervene, he would essentially be implicating himself as a defendant and by doing so, allowing SWN to sue Miles as well. Miles was evidently unfazed by this warning and, as he told me, presented a video that showed a broken aquifer from SWN leaking onto the forest floor. This is, apparently, a violation of the Oil and Natural Gas Act that – in section 40, under the prevention of loss or damage header – states, “If at any time an escape of oil or natural gas from a well is not prevented or if a flow of water is not controlled, the Minister may take such means as appear to him to be necessary or expedient in the public interest to control and prevent the escape of oil, natural gas, or water.”
While Miles’s evidence would have perhaps provided the grounds to argue that SWN has been negligent to the environment – which in some way would explain the anger of the protesters – the judge evidently did not find his evidence relevant and the injunction was granted to SWN. This means that all of the protesters named by SWN, and Miles, have been ordered to stay away from SWN equipment and have been forbidden from blocking SWN’s workflow.
So, this explains why Miles was arrested last week. It’s an odd move for a journalist to enter a court of law and offer themselves up as a defendant – because at that point, whether it was wrong of SWN to mess with the forest floor or not, Miles legally became part of the Mi’kmaq resistance rather than a journalistic witness in this particular incident. This injunction, however, did not stop Miles from trying to report on the story he had been thoroughly covering all year.
In the video above, shot by Miles Howe himself, you can see a run-in between the RCMP and Miles that occurred one day before his most recent arrest – after the injunction had been filed. In it, you can plainly see that Miles is being asked to stay away from obstructing SWN equipment and workers, but the officers do not ask him to stay away from Highway 11 where he was arrested the next day. When I asked Miles if he believes he was in violation of the injunction at the time of his last arrest, he told me this:
“I was standing on the side of the road… I was definitely not in violation of it. I wasn't saying anything, doing anything, making any motions. I asked the RCMP three times why I was being told to move myself and my car into a field. I explained the injunction to them and asked them what section of the highway act I was violating. They provided no reason, only saying, ‘move or you'll be arrested.’ I was standing on the side of the road the day before [as seen in the video] and the same officer told me just not to interfere or attempt to interfere with work, and that it would be best to stand on the opposite side of the road from the seismic testing equipment.”
Regardless of whether or not you believe Miles’ voluntary implication as a defendant in the SWN trial calls into question his journalistic neutrality, it’s obvious that the RCMP’s enforcement of the injunction seems abusive. Part of the problem appears to be that the injunction was granted with a very gray definition of how the RCMP should handle any potential violations of the court order. It’s essentially up to the officer at the scene to decide how to handle the arrangement, which accounts for the completely different reaction Miles got on the two days he was on Highway 11 after the injunction was granted.
After being in locked in solitary for 24 hours, he was released and ordered to sign an undertaking that placed further restrictions on him – including an order that he is now to stay a mile away from all protest sites. The RCMP then refused to give back Miles’s phone and camera because they are supposedly part of an open investigation.
It was at this point that Miles’s arrest caused a bit of a shitstorm online. Media Co-Op, the news site where Miles is a paid reporter and editor, posted an article announcing that this was Miles’s third arrest since he began covering the resistance. Then, a branch of Anonymous posted a video of the arrest that we’ve embedded below. In the video you can hear people yelling, “Miles is being arrested!” “He wasn’t even doing anything!” and “Leave Mi’kmaq Territory!” Then Miles yells, “I didn’t interfere!”
Once Anonymous and Media Co-Op began pumping out the news that a journalist had been arrested for covering the Mi’kmaq resistance movement, skepticism ran high—particularly at the CBC. In a segment on CBC Radio Frediction’s morning talk show, Information Morning, host Terry Seguin along with guests Philip Lee (a journalism professor at St. Thomas University) and Dan Leger (a journalist for the Chronicle Herald) argued about whether Miles Howe is a “blogger” or a “journalist.” Media Co-Op has requested an apology for this segment, as they believe it constitutes a “baseless attack” on Miles – and to make matters worse, the CBC apparently did not even ask for Miles to call in to explain his side of the story.
I reached out to Terry Seguin about this segment, and he declined to comment. The CBC also did not provide comment. Dan Leger, who called Miles Howe a “hot-headed fanatic” on the radio, wrote me this in an email:
“I defended Howe's right to write and report whatever he wanted. I also said reporting had often been considered a political act and that at it's most basic, to be a reporter is to be a witness. Howe fits that description. My point, which has been forgotten by people who are taking up Howe's cause, is that he had every right to be at the protest and to write about it. I fully support that right. I would only further add that if was he arrested for reporting I would oppose that wholeheartedly because it would constitute an abuse of freedom of speech and expression. Reporters should be free to witness and to report what they see, whether or not I agree with their politics.”
Then there’s Philip Lee who published a post on his Tumblr, with what some might call an immature title, “For the Halifax Media Co-Op: No Apology Here.” In it, Philip argues, “Mr. Howe is part of the anti-shale gas movement and writes about it. That’s just fine, but he can’t be involved to the extent that he is and be considered an independent investigative journalist.” Adding, “I don’t have anything to apologise for.”
The truth of the matter is that Miles Howe, perhaps misguidedly, placed himself in the midst of a legal battle between SWN and the protesters who had been allegedly vandalising their equipment. Making oneself an active participant in such a conflict is not the role of a journalist as it removes their objectivity as a witness. For this, I think Miles positioned himself as an activist, rather than a journalist or a blogger. In light of the facts, the CBC’s panel is accidentally correct in arguing that Miles must have done something other than journalism to get arrested – but they did not do the story due diligence to research what had gone wrong for Mr. Howe in the first place.
Hopefully this article clears up the still confounding situation that Miles Howe has found himself in. Evidently he has been lumped in with the Mi’kmaq resistance as some kind of rogue agent – which appears to be an easy label to peg him with given his association with a lesser-known, independent news agency and his active interference in a court injunction. Unfortunately, the legal conditions that have placed upon him have put a huge hole in the already minimal coverage coming out of the conflict between the Elsipogtog First Nation and SWN.
Clearly there is a very tense conflict in New Brunswick that is being covered by very few reporters. Miles Howe appears to have more connections to the Mi’kmaq community than any other mainstream journalist, and that makes him stand out. But other journalists should tread very lightly when it comes to discussing his story in the media, and people should pay close attention to the conflict between SWN – an oil company that admittedly has an abnormally “large and expensive security team” – and the First Nations of New Brunswick. The situation has already gotten violent once, on a fairly surreal level, and the arrest of Miles Howe, a controversial journalist who continuously finds himself in perilous legal grey areas, should be of particular concern to anyone who is following this story.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire
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