Friday, November 03, 2006

Canadian blogger's obstruction trial to test definition of journalist?


Blogger's obstruction trial to test definition of journalist

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2006 | 12:38 PM AT

CBC News

Self-described internet journalist Charles LeBlanc goes on trial Thursday, accused by police of obstructing justice during a rowdy demonstration in Saint John last June. LeBlanc says he was only taking pictures for his blog, and the case is really about freedom of the press extending to all journalists, not just those working for big media companies. The case is being closely watched in journalism circles around the country.

Charles LeBlanc, who goes on trial Thursday, takes pictures in downtown Fredericton for his blog. Charles LeBlanc, who goes on trial Thursday, takes pictures in downtown Fredericton for his blog. (CBC) LeBlanc has been a regular in downtown Fredericton for the last two years, spotting or stopping cabinet ministers and other power brokers on the sidewalks in front of government buildings for chats and photographs to provide content for his online journal. "This is the capital," he said. "All the generals are here. You never know who you'll run into."

LeBlanc is constantly grabbing images on his digital camera and then walking back to his small apartment and posting them on his website. He often gets pictures of events out hours before regular media outlets do, including coverage of Premier Shawn Graham's first day in office. "All the media was behind me, so I just went out front and the first thing Shawn says is 'Oh, Charles.' I mean, I'm like a reporter but I'm not paid for it." LeBlanc drops in on New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham for a picture to post in his online journal. LeBlanc drops in on New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham for a picture to post in his online journal. Leblanc's website is a massive collection of his musings, raw personal opinions and in some cases original journalism such as his coverage of the homeless in Fredericton.

Bloggers gaining recognition as journalists

Tim Currie, who teaches online journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, says bloggers like LeBlanc have begun to gain some recognition as legitimate journalists. "Many people are beginning to agree that what we used to call journalism needs to include a much broader spectrum of people who act journalistically. That we can't just consider reporters who work for mainstream media organizations as the only ones who can be journalists."

LeBlanc works in a journalistic grey area, but it doesn't deter him in the least, and neither does an almost complete lack of resources.

LeBlanc is arrested while attending a demonstration in June in which a group of protesters tried to push their way into a Saint John business conference. LeBlanc is arrested while attending a demonstration in June in which a group of protesters tried to push their way into a Saint John business conference. LeBlanc is on social assistance and often eats at the Fredericton soup kitchen just to make ends meet. His digital camera is a gift from an anonymous donor.

As a welfare recipient, LeBlanc occupies a social position that's normally invisible and powerless, but he is neither. He's better connected than most reporters, and enjoys an extraordinary first-name relationship with dozens of provincial decision-makers, including Premier Graham. Graham promised LeBlanc a visit to the premier's office if he won September's election, and greets the blogger warmly when LeBlanc shows up at his office with CBC cameras. "Okay, this is a picture of the premier ordering a study into the effect of Ritalin," LeBlanc said, snapping a picture of a laughing Graham, working at his desk.

Leblanc's camera and his website have taken him a long way. But more than that, they've helped him challenge traditional notions of journalism in New Brunswick, a challenge that's now headed to court in Saint John. Charles LeBlanc was arrested in Saint John last June. Three police officers subdued him on the ground while he identified himself ÿÿ to no effect ÿÿ as an internet blogger.

Kira Williston was a protester at the event where LeBlanc was arrested. "I was asking people, 'Who got arrested? Who got arrested?' and they said 'Charles LeBlanc.' "I said, 'The blogger?' And I couldn't figure out for the life of me why he would ever possibly be arrested. He had nothing at all to do with us. He was just taking pictures. That's all he ever does; he just takes pictures."

The arrest happened during a demonstration in which a group mostly made up of students tried to push their way into a Saint John business conference that was promoting something called Atlantica, a proposed trading bloc of eastern Canadian provinces and U.S. states. The protest caused a sensation and generated lots of media coverage from CTV, CBC-TV and Radio-Canada, whose reporters and camera operators stood metres away filming the melee. There was at least one newspaper photographer from the provincial paper, the Telegraph Journal, along with reporters from CBC radio, and journalists from other private radio stations.

LeBlanc also attended, taking pictures for his blog. Williston said LeBlanc blended in with the media crowd. "He was just standing next to the rest of the media. There were tons of media personnel there. There were radio, photographers and video footage being taken of everything going on." Duane Roussel, who was also with the protesters, saw LeBlanc's arrest unfold in front of him and, like Williston, says LeBlanc was doing nothing but taking pictures. "Charles LeBlanc was with the media, off on the side," he said. "But he wasn't chanting. He wasn't wearing a mask. He wasn't hiding anything."

CBC video of Leblanc appears to confirm that, showing him standing off to the side with his camera, and then a second time with his flash going off, and a third time kneeling to get more pictures. Watching the video, Tim Currie says LeBlanc doesn't appear to be doing anything different from other journalists. "It seems clear from this footage that Charles Leblanc is acting in the same way as the other reporters. He doesn't seem to be in the middle of the crowd, he's off to the side."

Toward the end of the demonstration, video shows Leblanc's arrest occurring quickly as Sgt. John Parks hands a protester he already has in custody off to another officer. The exchange happens right in front of LeBlanc, who still has his camera focused on the main demonstration. As the arrested protestor is led away, the camera catches a glimpse of Parks moving toward LeBlanc, past newspaper photographer Peter Walsh and CTV reporter Mike Cameron, where out of view he grabs LeBlanc, pushes him across the floor and up against the far wall right in front of protestor Duane Roussel.

"What I saw was the police officer take, with his hand, take Charles by the head and push him into the wall where the pictures are and I saw the pictures moving back and forth and I thought, 'Charles, why did they have to do this to Charles?' He wasn't pushing police. He wasn't trying to push his way into the conference centre. He was just taking pictures."

LeBlanc's version of the event is similar. "I was hollering, 'I'm a blogger, I'm a blogger.' Because I wanted the media to make sure that they could hear me that I wasn't a protestor." LeBlanc believes as a blogger he had the same right to be at the demonstration taking pictures as other reporters who weren't arrested, and he's hoping Thursday's trial in Saint John will help to establish that as a right. He's convinced he should be able to gather and deliver news and opinion his own way without going to jail for doing it.


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