This is not a religion story

This was the 12th time that Linda Gibbons had violated the 18-meter "bubble zone" that surrounds Canadian abortion clinics, so all the players in the scene knew their roles.

The tiny grandmother sat down and silently began to pray as Toronto police moved in. Sue Careless and two other journalists maneuvered to record the arrest. Careless concentrated on Gibbons, framing her in the camera's viewfinder between a church steeple and the clinic door. She heard an officer reading the familiar pre-arrest litany.

Then a policeman said, "You have to leave." Careless explained that she was a journalist and kept clicking. The last photo she took, before the handcuffs went on, showed the police starting to drag Gibbons across the street. The police confiscated her film.

"In the police van, I kept saying, 'I'm a journalist. ... I had a right to be there,' " said Careless. "One of the officers finally asked me, 'What's your name?' I said, 'Why don't you read it off my press card?' ... So that's what he did."

The police arrested one demonstrator and three freelance journalists.

"The math just didn't add up," said Careless.

But her legal bills quickly started to add up. Careless endured 13 court appearances before the Crown withdrew the charges. Oct. 15 marked the one-year anniversary of the arrests and her lawyer is still working to retrieve her mug shots and fingerprints from police files.

Careless has credentials from the Periodical Writers Association of Canada and the Canadian Association of Journalists and, in the past decade, has written 300-plus articles for 22 secular and religious publications. She is best known for her Canadian Church Press work and, when arrested, was on assignment for The Interim -- a national pro-life newspaper.

"It seemed like nobody, at least in the secular press, wanted to cover this," said Careless. "People said it was just a religion story or it was an abortion story. I kept saying, 'No! This is about freedom of the press. ... I had a press card and they arrested me. That's a story.' "

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects journalists, whether they work in powerful newsrooms or for smaller organizations. The same is true under U.S. law. But police on both sides of the border seem to be cracking down, said Paul McMaster, the First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va.

"A journalist is a journalist," he said. "It's not the government's job to credential some journalists and not others. ... Clearly, the whole point was to intimidate Sue Careless and the other journalists who were out there covering a controversial event."

Sadly, he added, this is probably a "win-win situation for the police. After all, who cares what happens to reporters?"

Careless noted that many other journalists -- even some who defend abortion rights -- cared enough to contribute to her legal defense fund. After all, there is nothing unusual about journalists getting caught in the tense territory between police and demonstrators. And the number of "alternative journalists" is rising, since the World Wide Web is allowing many secular and religious advocacy groups to create their own niche-news operations.

If a pro-life journalist could get arrested at an abortion-clinic protest, then a Mennonite journalist might be arrested outside a nuclear-weapons plant. A Wiccan website reporter might get handcuffed because she saw police break up a sit-in that was stopping loggers from entering a sacred forest. A Southern Baptist journalist might face arrest for photographing gay and lesbian protestors that disrupted a convention of evangelical sex therapists.

"It does not matter which media outlet sends the reporter, or what the personal sympathies are of the photographer, or what the politics are of the demonstration," argued Careless, in an essay for the Globe and Mail in Toronto. "As long as the journalist is working as a professional journalist, and not an activist, the police should not interfere with the news-gathering process.

"I and other freelance journalists must not be so intimidated by these arrests that we will retreat to only the safe subjects or flower shows. We must continue to gather news in the danger zones of public opinion."