The Alberta Government admits it made a mistake banning two Rebel Media reporters from covering government news conferences.
Premier Rachel Notley’s director of communications Cheryl Oates said Wednesday “no one will be excluded from government media events” until a review of the government’s media policy is complete.
“We’ve heard a lot of feedback from Albertans and media over the course of the last two days and it’s clear we made a mistake,” Oates said in an emailed statement Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Oates said the government has asked former Canadian Press journalist Heather Boyd to review its media policy after two Rebel Media reporters were denied access to government news conferences.
“We’ve asked her to consult with mainstream media, as well as talk to press gallery members, and look at the implications for new media around what the policy should be as well as what’s happening in other jurisdictions,” Oates said.
The review comes after Ezra Levant’s Rebel Media hired a lawyer to help them regain access to Alberta government news conferences.
In a letter to Oates, lawyer Fred Kozak raised concerns about three incidents. On Jan. 29, the NDP allegedly blocked Rebel reporter Sheila Gunn Reid from a media briefing about its royalty review, and removed Rebel reporter Holly Nicholas from the event. The two were apparently told to leave the building when they attempted to conduct interviews with industry stakeholders in a common area.
A few days later, on Feb. 3, Gunn Reid attempted to attend the joint news conference held by Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the legislature.
“We emailed Darcy Henton, the president of the legislature press gallery, to make sure that we would be meeting the requirements to attend this press conference, as we have in the past,” Gunn Reid said Tuesday. “He said any working member of the media in Alberta is allowed to cover the legislature.”
But, Gunn Reid said she was told by security The Rebel was on a “no-go” list, and she was escorted out of the building by a sheriff.
“I am a journalist. This is my full-time job. This is what I do every single day. I cover stories all across the province,” she said.
“I’m not traditional media. I’m not mainstream media. But my personal politics aside, that doesn’t give the government a right to determine whether I’m legitimate or not.”
Gunn Reid said this is a case of the government “silencing their critics.”
“Whatever our political stripes are, wherever we fall on the journalism spectrum, we all believe in a free press and we all believe in a free speech,” she said. “We all believe that the government has no business determining our legitimacy to do our job.”
Kozak’s letter threatens legal action if the government does not acknowledge that excluding the reporters was a mistake, and continues to ban them from media events.
The government responded with a letter from the Justice Ministry stating that The Rebel and anyone associated with it are not considered journalists, and will not be allowed access to government lockups or other such events.
On Tuesday, Oates said in one of the instances, journalists were required to register in advance for an embargoed technical briefing, which Rebel Media did not do. In another case, the legislature was closed to the public and “because Rebel is not a mainstream media source, they weren’t allowed in,” Oates explained.
“The person who’s running that media source has said under oath that he is not a journalist and so we don’t consider him a journalist,” Oates added.
The president of the Radio Television Digital News Association Canada said it shouldn’t be up to the government to decide who is and is not a journalist.
“We have a code of ethics which talks about integrity, truthfulness, fairness, respecting people’s privacy,” Ian Koenigsfest said. “Our feeling is if you follow the code and conduct yourself in a professional way, you should be allowed to tell your story.”
Oates expects the review to take two to three weeks.
*Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. It was updated on Wednesday to include new comments from the government.