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'Cowardly' anonymous attacks on journalist covering COVID denounced by B.C. judge

Richard Sean Oliver pleaded guilty to criminal harassment and was ordered not to contact journalists Jody Vance, Keith Baldrey, Marcella Bernardo and others.

A Vancouver provincial court judge has called anonymous attacks on a journalist "cowardly," "predatory" and unacceptable in a civilized society.

Judge Peter LaPrairie made the remarks as he sentenced Richard Sean Oliver to a year of probation for sending journalist Jody Vance more than 100 abusive emails. The 53-year-old pleaded guilty to one count of criminal harassment.

Oliver had disagreed with her reporting in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He began sending emails to Vance and forwarding them to her colleagues, supervisors and show guests. The emails, sent from multiple addresses, were sent between March and September of 2020.

Vance said the decision shows there is room for Canada to changes laws significantly.

“I’m just one of many, many who have been suffering at the hands of people who feel it’s their right to harass others.”

LaPrairie said the emails were misogynistic and became "aggressive and threatening in nature." 

“They reference her family and in particular her son. There are altered photos of Ms. Vance included in the emails,” the judge said, noting they were "disturbing."

“Mr. Oliver may have disagreed with media coverage of the COVID pandemic but there is no place in a civil society for misogynistic, threatening and demeaning emails of this nature,” said the judge.

LaPrairie said Vance feared for her safety and that of her family, particularly her son, as the tone of the emails grew worse.

Vance responded three times, asking the sender to stop. He didn’t.

She then told her employer and eventually the police, who identified him and told him to stop. Oliver did stop but he continued sending emails to Vance’s colleagues and guests.

LaPrairie called sending angry emails “a cowardly way to vent his frustrations on Ms. Vance, who was merely carrying out her duties as a journalist.”

“The frequency and tone of the emails to Ms. Vance constitutes an aggravating factor,” LaPrairie said.

The judge called Oliver’s actions "predatory."

In passing the conditional sentence, LaPrairie told Oliver he was not to contact Vance and other journalists, including now-CBC Kamloops reporter Marcella Bernardo and Global’s Keith Baldrey.

Oliver was also told he was to take counselling as advised by his probation officer. He's also prohibited from possessing weapons. The judge told Oliver if he violated those conditions, he would be back before the court for sentencing.

Outside court, Vance told Glacier Media she felt “significant closure” with the decision.

“The mission that has sparked within me has only just begun,” she said. “This is a precedent-setting case in that the judge very much heard what was being laid out in the court — just a sampling of what this individual sent to me.”

Harassment of journalists

Receiving abusive anonymous emails is for many reporters just part of the job.

Bernardo said the decision is a welcome precedent for multiple reporters who are routinely subject to such abuse.

“What I appreciate is the judge pointed out today that people who send emails anonymously are cowards,” the longtime Vancouver radio reporter said. “I’m very proud of how Jody has handled this. When I was getting emails from this particular person, I didn’t know how to handle it.”

She said she didn’t know if the sender was dangerous or not, something she called disconcerting.

Bernardo said the abuse got worse as the pandemic continued with people “accusing us of being stooges for Dr. Bonnie Henry or not understanding what science was.”

“In my case, I was called a murderer,” Bernardo said.

Journalism and trauma

A recent report from the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma on media workers' mental health and trauma found harassment increased during the pandemic. That was on top of the stresses of covering difficult and distressing events.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a diminished sense of well-being and heightened feelings of isolation, while also exposing people to more harassment and creating real fears about financial stability and job security,” the report said. “A surprisingly high rate of people — more than half — have sought medical help to deal with work-related stress and trauma.”

A survey included with the report found journalists have been increasingly targeted and intimidated online for doing their jobs.

The Taking Care survey found 56 per cent of Canadian media workers reported being harassed or threatened on social media, and 35 per cent said they also experienced face-to-face harassment while working in the field.

Workers with the highest profiles or most visible job roles are most likely to report worsening online harassment. Those break down as:

  • 85 per cent of video journalists;
  • 71 per cent of photographers;
  • 67 per cent of hosts/presenters;
  • 55 per cent of reporters; and,
  • 53 per cent of camera operators.

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