Russia threatened retaliation against Canadian media after Sputnik and others barred at Lima Group

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2019, file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia. Sergei Chirikov/Pool Photo via AP, File

The Russian embassy threatened retaliatory actions against Canadian journalists in Russia after officials with Global Affairs Canada denied accreditation to cover the Lima Group meeting to several Russian and Venezuelan propaganda outlets.

According to documents obtained by Global News through access to information laws, staff within Global Affairs Canada were privately warning that there would be retaliation against Canadian media over the decision to deny accreditation to Sputnik, RT, Ruptly, TASS and Ria Novosti to cover the Feb. 4 meeting on how to restore democracy to Venezuela amid a collapse into authoritarianism.

Telesur, the Venezuelan state-sponsored outlet, was also refused accreditation.

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“The Russian Embassy has now reached out to us asking about the reported ‘denial of accreditation to Russian news agencies to attend the meeting on Venezuela.’ They have said they view this as ‘being out of the rules and common practice based on freedom of speech’ and have asked for an official explanation, ‘taking into account the principle of reciprocity,'” reads an email sent Feb. 5 to senior staff in the department and marked “urgent.”

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“We can expect reciprocal actions against Canadian media in Russia.”

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Global News filed an access to information request on March 14, 2019, seeking “all records related to the decision on Feb. 4, 2019, to bar the news agencies Sputnik, ITAR-TASS and Telesur” from the meeting, and received roughly 40 pages in response on May 6, 2019.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, herself a former journalist, have made press freedom a key pillar of both their domestic and foreign policy agendas.

The barred outlets generally function as state propaganda sites rather than journalism platforms, and several are routinely accused of spreading misinformation.

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But nowhere in the documents released is there evidence of that being part of the official decision-making process.

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A memo titled “Russian outlets interested in attending the Lima Group Meeting on February 4, 2019” lists the names of the outlets but redacts an unidentified section next to each listing. It is not possible to say what material was included in that part.

Instead, at issue is whether a Global Affairs official told Sputnik that is was denied accreditation because it “hasn’t been cordial” with Freeland rather than because of more specific instances of publishing and spreading misinformation, a rationale which if used would have put Canada’s decision in line with the rationale provided for similar bans by countries like France.

A post by Sputnik attributed the quote to a specific Global Affairs Canada spokesperson in response to a question about why accreditation was refused.

The emails in the release package show Canadian officials originally said the quote was “false reporting.”

But their response appears to have shifted within 24 hours.

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Sputnik submitted a request through the media branch at 10:50 a.m. on Feb. 4 asking, “What was the main reason to ban Sputnik?” and “Could you explain the meaning of that phrase?” in reference to what is attributed as a quote from the official saying, it “hasn’t been cordial.”

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“If you agree, we will take no further action on the inquiry below,” a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada’s media relations department wrote in an 11:16 a.m. email flagging the request to several senior staff.

“Agree,” wrote back Adam Austen, press secretary for Freeland, before adding in a follow-up email, “for the second point though, you can say that we will not be responding to false reporting given the quote attributed to a Canadian official is inaccurate.”

“With pleasure,” the departmental spokesperson wrote back at 11:37 a.m.

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The spokesperson sent the response to Sputnik within minutes, saying that “the quote attributed to a Canadian official below is inaccurate and does not warrant comment.”

The next day, the media freedom branch of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OCSE) got in touch.

A member of the Canadian delegation to the OSCE emailed colleagues at Global Affairs Canada to tell them that they needed to provide a response to a request for more details of the accreditation decision from the office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

“The denial of accreditation to Sputnik and RIA Novosti is a recurrent issue in the OSCE context, and there is a possibility that the issue could be raised at the Thursday meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council by the Russian delegation,” the note from the delegation members states.

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The letter from the office of the representative is included in the documents released through access-to-information laws and notes that Sputnik raised the matter with them and adds that “before advising the Representative, we wanted to check with you informally about any issues regarding accreditation to this event.”

Global Affairs Canada officials wrote back several hours later, saying they were still gathering information “but there is a collective sense that we do not want to wait too long before responding to the Russians on this.”

Shortly later, they come back with an approved response to send to Russia.

“The credentials presented Monday were refused as part of the formal accreditation process,” the response stated. “With regard to the comments in Sputnik yesterday attributed to a Global Affairs spokesperson, those comments do not reflect the position of the Government of Canada.”

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Global News reached out to Austen, the press secretary for Freeland, asking why the response lines shifted from calling the attributed remarks “false reporting” to saying they don’t represent the government’s views.

As well, Global News asked whether the individual quoted as making the remarks still works for the department, and what measures were being taken to limit the retaliation that could come against Canadian journalists in Russia.

Austen did not address the specific questions but provided a statement suggesting the barred outlets’ histories of publishing propaganda was a factor.

“Canada is a strong voice for freedom of expression and freedom of the press at home and abroad,” he said in an email.

“Global Affairs Canada has a broad accreditation policy to ensure that media are able to report on events hosted in Canada. We take this responsibility seriously. Our objective is to provide access to media outlets that do not deliberately distort facts or spread propaganda and misinformation.”

He added that the process was followed for the Lima Group meetings and that accreditation policies are being constantly evaluated.

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