'Targeted because of my job': Assault on CBC photojournalist results in guilty plea

·3 min read
Chris Savva punched CBC photojournalist Ben Nelms at a pro-Trump protest in downtown Vancouver on Wednesday, Jan. 6. Savva was given a conditional discharge after pleading guilty to assault. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Chris Savva punched CBC photojournalist Ben Nelms at a pro-Trump protest in downtown Vancouver on Wednesday, Jan. 6. Savva was given a conditional discharge after pleading guilty to assault. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

CBC photojournalist Ben Nelms is used to capturing news — not making it.

The 33-year-old bore personal witness to increasing violence against journalists worldwide last year when he was punched in the face while documenting protesters rallying in support of former U.S. president Donald Trump on the same day rioters overwhelmed the U.S. Capitol.

Five people died in Washington, D.C. that day. Nelms was left with a bruised eye, a swollen cheek and the unsettling feeling that he was attacked because of his profession.

"Photojournalists are on the front line of news and current events. This ultimately comes with a sometimes unknown level of hostility, of which every photojournalist worth their weight is well aware of," Nelms told the CBC.

"However, in this case I was targeted simply because of my job and the cameras around my neck."

Eagle-eye proves instrumental

The man who punched Nelms, Chris Savva, pleaded guilty to assault in Vancouver's Downtown Community Court Friday — receiving a conditional discharge, which means he will have no criminal record.

The attack occurred on Jan. 6, 2021 outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, where Savva was part of a small group gathered for what turned out to be a series of spontaneous protests held across North America.

Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The B.C. rally was held to support a doomed bid by Trump's followers to stop the certification of U.S. President Joe Biden's election win. After Trump spoke at a rally near the U.S. Capitol, a mob of protestors there overwhelmed police and forced their way into the building that serves as the heart of American democracy.

The Crown asked for Savva to be given a suspended sentence.

According to news reports, Savva's lawyer claimed his client was walking past the gallery when he observed a confrontation between protestors and counter-protestors. He said Savva was not a member of either group.

The judge said Savva could not have known that Nelms — who carries a number of camera bodies around his neck — was a journalist.

Although the assault was witnessed by numerous other media, the identity of Nelms' attacker — who was masked — could not initially be determined.

As it turned out, the photojournalists' eagle eye proved instrumental in bringing the accused to justice when Nelms spotted Savva at another rally at the art gallery a number of months later, and Savva took his mask off just long enough for Nelms to get the shot and call police.

'A very disturbing trend'

Nelms was Canadian News Photographer of the year in 2019.

At the time of the attack, News Photographers Association of Canada president Crystal Schick condemned the assault, pointing to epithets like "fake news" as undermining professionals who work in pursuit of truth.

Ben Nelms
Ben Nelms

"A free press is necessary for an informed public. Photojournalists, reporters and editors are committed to a code of ethics built on truth, accuracy, humanity and accountability," Schick said.

"The assault on Mr. Nelms underscores the growing challenge our colleagues face in simply doing their jobs, and that's not acceptable."

In a statement, CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson said the attack on Nelms was "consistent with a very disturbing trend."

"Our journalists engage with the public as part of their job but they are all too often exposed to unacceptable levels of harassment and abuse, both in person and online," Thompson said.

"This has become a new reality of working in journalism today and it shouldn't be. We are doing everything in our power to ensure our journalists can do their work safely, free from threats and harassment."

As part of his sentence, Savva must complete 12 months of probation.

Nelms says he lives with the knowledge of just how real the threat of violence is every time he points his camera.

"Journalists should be free to keep their finger on the pulse of their city without having to be fearful of hate-filled attacks," Nelms said.