Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to media after a visit with nursing students at the School of Nursing in the St Boniface University in Winnipeg, Thursday, September 1, 2022. Trudeau says Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino will tell chiefs of police today that all police forces need to take seriously a pattern of hate and harassment targeting journalists and other public figures. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to media after a visit with nursing students at the School of Nursing in the St Boniface University in Winnipeg, Thursday, September 1, 2022. Trudeau says Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino will tell chiefs of police today that all police forces need to take seriously a pattern of hate and harassment targeting journalists and other public figures. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Police must take online threats and harassment against journalists seriously: Trudeau

Police forces need to take seriously a pattern of hate and harassment targeting journalists and other public figures, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday.

Trudeau said that message would be conveyed to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police during a meeting with Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino Thursday afternoon.

“He will be bringing forward an expectation that police forces across this country take seriously — very seriously, not just as individual issues, but as a systemic issue — this pattern of intimidation and attacks of people who serve their country, like journalists,” Trudeau said.

The CACP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The prime minister was responding to an open letter signed by dozens of Canadian media organizations and published by the Canadian Association of Journalists. The letter, which was also signed by The Canadian Press, calls for more action by police, including not treating complaints as isolated incidents.

The CAJ raised concerns in February about an alarming rise in physical and verbal assaults on journalists covering the anti-government protests in Ottawa. In the months since, that morphed into what the CAJ says appears to be a co-ordinated and targeted attack on specific journalists, most of them women of colour.

Emails shared by the journalists online show similar language and threats, including of physical and sexual violence, and in many cases racist and hateful language.

“The volume and nature of the rhetoric in the recent string of attacks has caused many journalists, as well as their respective organizations, to fear for their safety,” said the letter sent to Trudeau.

Several journalists also expressed difficulty getting through to police to report the threats and said that they weren’t taken seriously when they did.

“We are asking police forces to take several immediate steps to address the current incidents and to work with our organizations to combat abuse of journalists and all victims of online hate and harassment,” the CAJ wrote.

That includes seeing the threats as a co-ordinated pattern, not as one-off incidents, and investigating them as such. It also includes improving the process for people to make complaints about hate speech and harassment and being more transparent about investigations that are launched.

The CAJ said many of the threatening emails “use similar language, the language commonly used by domestic extremist groups,” but the police are treating each complaint as an individual incident.

“We are concerned that the connections among cases and the connections to extremist groups will be missed and that, therefore, this approach could fail to meet the threat,” the letter said.

Trudeau said the government will look at the idea that the rise in threats and harassment is “part of a systemic approach to weaken our democracy, to intimidate those who are there to hold to account.”

In the years since COVID-19, a number of professions, including doctors and nurses, scientists, public health officials and politicians, have seen more online and in-person threats and verbal assaults.

In September 2020, Dr. Bonnie Henry, the chief medical officer of health in British Columbia, said she had to hire security to watch her home and had been targeted with death threats.

Abuse of medical professionals became so profound during COVID-19 that the federal government passed a law to make it a specific crime to threaten or harass health care workers.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner has been vocal for years about the harassment she faced as a female politician, to the point where she said she is “on edge” and feels fearful going about normal daily activities.

Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and her staff were accosted by a man in Grande Prairie, Alta., who hurled obscenities at her. The RCMP is investigating the incident.

Trudeau said the threats have a chilling effect on a free press and democracy.

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