Vancouver box sweep stifles community newspapers

Published in Xtra! West newspaper | October 20, 2011 | Circulation: 39,600

Photo by David P. Ball

City staff’s decision to suddenly remove hundreds of newspaper boxes from Vancouver’s downtown core in anticipation of possible violence from Occupy Vancouver has many community newspaper publishers and civil libertarians crying foul.
“When boxes are removed from downtown, readers of smaller and minority publications are disproportionately hit,” says Xtra‘s engagement director Gareth Kirkby.
“The smaller papers, including papers serving minority communities, have fewer boxes on the street in the first place,” Kirkby explains, “and taking some of them away makes it harder for their readers to find the papers. The long-established mainstream publications have far more boxes everywhere, and they tend to be very heavy boxes that the city does not remove.”
Heeding its report on the June 15 hockey riot, city hall gathered a group of staff from emergency services, engineering and maintenance to form a large-event oversight committee after activists announced their intention to camp out at the Vancouver Art Gallery to protest economic corruption.
“Our initial scenario was one of caution,” explains city engineer Jerry Dobrovolny. “June 15 wasn’t that long ago.”
“Regardless, we do have the ability to remove newspaper boxes — or to instruct publishers that they will be confiscated if they are not removed,” Dobrovolny says.
“It’s a severe overreaction based on fear, not rational assessment,” Kirkby counters. “This is worse than bad judgment.”
City staff “are trampling on the Charter rights of our readers and effectively discriminating against readers from the gay and other minority communities,” Kirkby maintains.
Dobrovolny told Xtra that some boxes can return as the risk assessment is downgraded and apologized for the lack of warning. However, the engineer would not comment on civil liberties questions, and the city manager was unavailable for comment.
The executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association is also concerned about the newspaper boxes’ removal.
“There’s no doubt removing newspaper boxes has a disproportionate impact on smaller newspapers that don’t have the deep pockets of a corporation,” David Eby says. “We can understand the reason [the city] might want to remove them if they’re not attached. But is there a demonstrable threat? Such measures have to be weighed against the cost to freedom of expression.”
Councillor Ellen Woodsworth agrees. Fears of newspaper boxes hurled through windows – as happened during a 2010 Olympics protest – are unwarranted and preventable with chains, she says.
“It’s definitely an infringement of freedom of speech,” says Woodsworth, with the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE). “There haven’t been any violent protests around Occupy Wall St or Occupy Vancouver.”
Downtown is a gathering place for the queer community, she adds, and access to Xtra is vital. The same applies to other communities’ newspapers.
“Independent newspapers give information on the LGBT community, the Asian community, on the Occupy Vancouver movement. This is a democracy — we need to have access to diverse attitudes and viewpoints,” she says.
For Lauren Gill, a queer participant in Occupy Vancouver, the boxes’ removal had a double impact. It prevented the roughly 5,000 demonstrators on Oct 15 — and the dozens who have continued their protest camp since — from accessing independent news and perspectives about their own event or the Occupy movement worldwide. But the removals also reflect a narrow focus on security that she feels is dangerous.
“The city removing boxes has set a tone for the criminalization of dissent,” says Gill, an independent candidate for city council. “The fact that they see it as a potentially violent movement discourages people from participating. It’s clear city council is protecting property over people — they don’t put the same effort into protecting marginalized people as they do windows.”
While the city has agreed to shrink its box-free zone, it is unclear when Xtra, the Asian Pacific Post or other publications will return to normal distribution.
Asian Pacific Post executive editor Jagdeesh Mann worries the boxes are increasingly unwelcome on Vancouver’s streets. “It almost feels inevitable that news boxes will be pushed out of the city,” he says. “Those poor little metal boxes — they’re a very important part of our society. All our voices create diversity and richness in the environment.”

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