The question of who should have media access to Alberta legislature press events drew national headlines last week.
The online, Ezra Levant-fronted media site, The Rebel, managed to rally mainstream media after its reporters were repeatedly being denied access, allegedly at one point being told they were on a “no-go” list.
The Rebel is an unabashedly right-wing site and has been actively critical of the NDP provincial government led by Rachel Notley.
After the uproar hit the headlines, Heather Boyd, a former Canadian Press bureau chief, was asked to review media policies for the provincial government. In the meantime, no one will be barred from government media events, said a press release from the premier’s press secretary Cheryl Oates.
“I was really happy that the premier acknowledged that she made a mistake, we made a mistake, so she’ll correct it,” said St. Albert MLA Marie Renaud.
Renaud said the thing that bothered her about the uproar was that the government wasn’t trying to censor anyone. The issue was one of access.
Boyd will get to look at the policies around access, Renaud said.
“There’s a whole lot of other people who are writers, bloggers, who will likely want access as well,” Renaud said.
But there’s only so much room, she said, and there could be security issues.
“You’re going to have a packed room and I guess I worry a little bit that there won’t be a whole lot of time for people to ask the questions they want or the follow-up questions they want, so I guess for me it’s more about logistics,” she said.
“On a personal note, people can write whatever they want, that’s your right, but I worry sometimes about the misinformation,” she said, noting she personally has been yelled at based on misinformation that’s been published by various news sources.
“I’m sure they’ll find a solution to allow access to everybody that should have it or would like it,” she said.
Spruce Grove-St. Albert MLA Trevor Horne’s constituency assistant directed the Gazette to the premier’s office when approached for an interview with Horne.
The Rebel hired media lawyer Fred Kozak, a partner at Reynolds Mirth Richards and Farmer LLP.
He said he took this case because “freedom of expression is a concept that means all voices get to be heard, even the ones that are disagreeable or express views that are directly opposed to your own.”
“Recognition and an acknowledgement that a mistake had been made is a good first step. Allowing access pending the review is important, but our hope that the review will emphasize that it shouldn’t be the government who decides who is or who isn’t a journalist,” Kozak said.
He said he’s confident Boyd’s review will examine comments from the Supreme Court of Canada about journalists, that no government purports to qualify or credential journalists and that rules that are in place tend to be aimed at preventing disruption.
He said there’s clearly a basis to deny someone who is being disruptive access, but said this wasn’t the case when his clients were denied entry.
“The representatives who were denied access were being unquestionably polite and professional and respectful, and when directed to leave they did so,” he said.
He said journalist has a broad definition compared to reporter. The Notley government responded to Kozak’s letter to the government noting Levant had previously said he’s not a reporter.
“In my mind, journalists include reporters, columnists, editorial writers, bloggers, cartoonists, a wide variety of people who relay information or express their opinion,” Kozak said.
He noted there have been previous government attempts in Alberta to control the press, like the Social Credit government’s attempt to legislate the press in 1937.
“It’s a very dangerous and slippery slope to tie access to a point of view or a perspective, that’s not how a democracy functions, people benefit from being exposed to a wide range of opinions, especially on political events. The remedy for speech that you don’t agree with, or for which you are critical, is to ignore it, or rebut it, but not to silence it by preventing access,” he said.